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A Little Vegetarian Guide… The Most Delicious Dishes to Try When Traveling in India

sipping chai teaThe spicy mingling of scents when you step foot into the India is among my favorite memories of my months in South Asia. Before traveling across India on my round the world trip, I had backpacked through Southeast Asia. And although the food there is tasty, India is paradise of flavors for a vegetarian. The food selection in the country is incredible. The country offers hundreds of traditional dishes, and all vary from north to south. Each region has unique dishes and a unique suffusion of flavors.

Walking through the Indian cities, my nose would lift to air like a puppy, catching the scent of savory curries, fried dough, and spicy chai tea. Then I would follow the scent and find the crowd of locals around a tasty street stall chai stand, or a piping hot samosa ready to find it’s way into my hand. I have a deep love of Indian food in every form, so I was in vegetarian foodie heaven. Much of the country is primarily vegetarian — it’s only the far north that really adds meat into the diet. For the first time in my life, I walked into a restaurant and I could eat every dish on offer. Usually, when I eat at a restaurant back home in the States, there is a token salad or pasta on the menu, but even then it’s often a dish that I can order without the meat.

India is different, the entire subcontinent has designed a cuisine intended to taste delicious without meat. There’s no fake meat substitutes and never a need to add extra salt and spices. Each region of India offers a smorgasbord of options. With that in mind, I could never fully cover all the dishes available. Instead, I’ll fun down my favorite eats that I found on my trip. I traveled from Mumbai to McLeod Ganj, stopping along the way. And while I did eat at South Indian restaurants on my travels north, I haven’t had the pleasure of eating exclusively in that part of the country. Let’s dive into my favorite Indian Dishes.

Vegetarian Food Guide for India

Indians deeply understand the concept of vegetarianism, this will not be an issue for anyone  traveling through the country. Veganism is a bit different — most Indians consume a large amount of dairy through their yogurt drinks and the paneer cheese. That said, many menus are clearly marked with ingredients and it is easy to avoid the handful of dishes that feature paneer, and all of the yogurt drinks are off limits.

Another boon to the vegetarian traveler is the prevalence of English throughout India. Because of the British colonization and Great Britain ruling over India until the mid-20th Century, English is widespread. Poor and rural areas may not have 100 percent English fluency, but in many of these places the food on offer will certainly be vegetarian, so you’re in the clear.

With vegetarianism spread so widely throughout the subcontinent, there is no need to offer a survival guide to Indian food. The majority of the dishes come vegetarian first, and meat is added only for those tourists and the select few eating chicken or some such. Cows are off-limits (they are sacred in India), so you’ll never worry about finding unexpected beef in your food. With survival covered — you can always find vegetarian food — let’s instead think of India as a tasting ground for amazing vegetarian food. Let’s dive right in, here are my favorite dishes and treats from traveling throughout India.

The Indian Thali

Indian Thali

A traditional Indian thali with sides and small dishes that are constantly refilled until you are full

My hands-down ultimate recommendation for a tourist in India —particularly if you’re only in the country for a few days — is to try the Indian thali. At the right establishment, this dish will rock your world. It’s a sample platter, and which curries and dishes depends on the restaurant’s speciality. The thali often comes themed to the region you’re visiting — so you might eat a sample platter of foods from Kerala and the south if you’re eating at a South Indian thali restaurant. Sample these widely and don’t hesitate to

If you have time, visit a thali-specific restaurant, it makes all the difference. I visited the Natraj Lodge in Udaipur and it is the best thali I have ever eaten. For those sampling a thali for the first time, they are often served on a metal tray filled with several metal dishes. Servers circulate the room and fill up your dish as you eat. Each dish is tiny, but the thali is bottomless so think of it as a chance to sample all of the flavors and then fill up on your favorites. The dishes on offer vary, but includes a smattering of dishes like dhal, a paneer dish, something with chickpeas, a potato option, etc. Then they toss onto the plate a handful of onions and lemons, a scoop of rice. and a fresh chapati. Most Indians eat this dish (and many others) with their fingers, so if you don’t have silverware on the table then tear pieces of the chapati to tear and spoon food into your mouth. If you just have rice, the proper technique is described here. Extra tip: Pay attention! They rapidly refill your plate as they circulate the room until you tell them to stop.

South Indian Dosa

 

South Indian Dosa meal

A south Indian dosa with a lassi drink, served with several traditional sides and dips.

So, with all of this sampling and taste testing for six weeks through India, I have several favorite dishes: tomato aubergine curry, palak paneer, and bhel puri (it’s the crunchy – I love the crunch thingies!).

Cousin H (also a vegetarian – how ideal was that!) was mildly obsessed with the South Indian dosas – and when they’re good, they are incredibly tasty. I like them. Not a favorite, but they’re pretty unique.

The key to a dosa is the incredibly thin and crispy layer on the outside and the one drawback is that you can sometimes only order dosas for dinner (what about every other time of day?!). Inside is any combination you choose – traditionally very potato based.

Note the small white creamy side dish – this is the light and cooling coconut paste used to alter the flavor of the dish or cool your palate after a particularly spicy bite!

Curd, Lassi, and Dairy

Fruit Salad served with Indian curd

The dairy in India is phenomenal. Most restaurants receive a daily delivery of fresh curd (I know this because I am an early riser and often had to wait for my breakfast until the delivery of fresh). Curd is essentially a type of yogurt, what differs is mostly the way the milk is processed into yogurt and which strains of bacteria remain after the process.

Curd and Yogurt
Fruit salad and curd is a treat in India. The fruit is tasty and fresh and the yogurt is pretty amazing in tandem. Although I have always loved dairy, it was my time in India that kickstarted my use of yogurt and curd in so many different ways. It’s easy to start the day with protein-packed yogurt, then add it to pasta sauces for an evening dinner. One note of caution, however, be careful eating raw fruits anywhere in the country. In fact, completely skip unskinned apple and grapes — these are often contaminated with the local water supply and will be a fast way to get a parasite.

Cucumber Raita
Indian food also makes use of curd as an accompaniment to spicy dishes. A dallop of a curd in a side dish cools burning taste buds, or the best addition is the cucumber raita. This traditional side dish is often served in a tiny bowl with the meal, and it’s diced cucumber and yogurt mixed into a refreshing concoction. It’s also easy to make, and this cucumber raita recipe would be tasty for those looking to infuse the flavors of India into the kitchen.

lassi drink in India

The Makhania lassi, which is a big concoction of flavors and ingredients blended into a delicious yogurt drink.

Lassi Drink
The lassi is a staple of the drink in the Indian diet. Although this drink has crossed over to Indian restaurants in the west, it’s definitely not just a tourist import. I watched families, couples, and chatting men slurp down a delicious yogurt lassi drink with their meals.

One reason the lassi is so well-loved is due to the digestive properties of yogurt. All of that good bacteria is a powerful and needed force against the contamination issues rampant in the country. For other travelers — especially vegetarians who may be eating more vegetables and fruits than others — I recommend using dairy as a preventative measure in your diet when traveling the country; it helps keep the GI tract in good working order.

And really, the lassi is an easy addition to any meal; it’s no trouble at all to order one of these! I most often opted for the traditional and refreshingly simple “sweet lassi.” But then a rare find in Pushkar produced the Makhania lassi; it’s infused with saffron extract, almond extract, cardamom, and rose. Then it’s topped with cashews, pistachios, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and a sprinkle of coconut. My mouth waters at the memory. In fact, I have made it using this Makhaniya Lassi recipe back home and it’s stellar. Plan on sampling these drinks widely and try the unique and fun flavors offered in various regions and cities.

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  • I should not have clicked on this before lunch! Most Indian restaurants in the United States and Europe focus on northern Indian dishes that are usually creamy, heavy curries. But, after traveling through India our favorite meals were thalis, dosas and snack food (e.g., samosa chaat). We are always on the lookout now for southern Indian restaurants when we travel but the dosas never seem to be the same.

  • You don't happen to be talking about Natraj's restaurant in Udaipur??? I love their thalis! Although the best I've ever had were in Ahmedabad. A Gujarati thali is my favorite meal on the planet…

    Why do I have to be so far away from India right now?! Ahhhh!!

  • Stephanie RJ

    Actually Dosas are not cooked in the tandoor (a relatively recent introduction to the south) but on either a griddle top or a 'tawa', a flat, usually cast iron (but nowadays often nonstick) pan. Much like a crepe!

    As for favorites, I love avial (which you might have in the thali there, it's a dry coconut and vegetable curry) and pumpkin curry. But my favorite dish of all must be vellayappam and ishtoo. Vellayappam is like a hybrid of a dosa and idli – the batter is fermented overnight and is slightly sweeter than either dosa or idli, it's cooked in a special curve bottomed pan. Ishtoo is the simplest curry – potatoes, onions, a chili pepper, salt and coconut milk, simmered in a clay pot. You'd rarely find it in a restaurant, but it's the most wonderful and comforting food.

  • I'm lucky, Vancouver offers many types of Indian cuisine. I've tried dosas and thalis. Ooh, those pics are making my mouth water.

  • I should not have clicked on this before lunch! Most Indian restaurants in the United States and Europe focus on northern Indian dishes that are usually creamy, heavy curries. But, after traveling through India our favorite meals were thalis, dosas and snack food (e.g., samosa chaat). We are always on the lookout now for southern Indian restaurants when we travel but the dosas never seem to be the same.

    • ShannonOD

      I completely agree on the South Indian dishes, although I didn't make it to
      the south, so I am sure that there were a bunch of specialties that I missed
      out on. When I get back to India I definitely starting the exploration in
      the south :-) Those crispy dosas and street samosas are just too alluring –
      hope you found a good substitute for lunch in South America! :-)

  • You don't happen to be talking about Natraj's restaurant in Udaipur??? I love their thalis! Although the best I've ever had were in Ahmedabad. A Gujarati thali is my favorite meal on the planet…

    Why do I have to be so far away from India right now?! Ahhhh!!

    • ShannonOD

      That is EXACTLY the one!! I love that you went there too – it was one of my
      fav foodie experiences in India becuase I was absolutely the only Westerner
      there :-)

      Will have to add the Gujarati thali to my list of things to try when I get
      back to India – I am with you on the India longing, pondering how soon I can
      get back over there… :-)

      • As soon as I read the post I had a feeling it would be the same place! I remember sitting upstairs at Natraj's as the only foreigner there as well and loving every minute…two, three, four servings…I couldn't stop!

  • Stephanie RJ

    Actually Dosas are not cooked in the tandoor (a relatively recent introduction to the south) but on either a griddle top or a 'tawa', a flat, usually cast iron (but nowadays often nonstick) pan. Much like a crepe!

    As for favorites, I love avial (which you might have in the thali there, it's a dry coconut and vegetable curry) and pumpkin curry. But my favorite dish of all must be vellayappam and ishtoo. Vellayappam is like a hybrid of a dosa and idli – the batter is fermented overnight and is slightly sweeter than either dosa or idli, it's cooked in a special curve bottomed pan. Ishtoo is the simplest curry – potatoes, onions, a chili pepper, salt and coconut milk, simmered in a clay pot. You'd rarely find it in a restaurant, but it's the most wonderful and comforting food.

    • ShannonOD

      Thanks for the correction – I had no idea. One of the restaurants in the
      north told us we couldnt order a dosa because the Tandoor oven was down!
      Chalk that up to being a tourist I guess :-)

      All of those curries you describe sound absolutely amazing – I am a sucker
      for any of the coconut curries and dishes, so you have certainly given a few
      fantastic ones for me to add to my list for next time I'm in the country!
      I'll have to keep a keen eye out for the Ishtoo if I'm in any more homey
      environments. Thanks again for the feedback, you have me excited to get back
      to India and try some new dishes :-)

  • What a fabulous post… I love Indian food and I'm happy that it seems to be going more mainstream in many cities. Where I grew up in the states (deep south), you were considered sort of weird if you liked it.

    The spices are really good for you

  • I'm lucky, Vancouver offers many types of Indian cuisine. I've tried dosas and thalis. Ooh, those pics are making my mouth water.

    • ShannonOD

      I hear you – it's after writing these entries that I decided that Indian
      foods were top on my list of restaurants to find when I was in NYC these
      past couple days! You're lucky to live in a big city with a lot of great
      choices!! :-)

  • ShannonOD

    That is EXACTLY the one!! I love that you went there too – it was one of my
    fav foodie experiences in India becuase I was absolutely the only Westerner
    there :-)

    Will have to add the Gujarati thali to my list of things to try when I get
    back to India – I am with you on the India longing, pondering how soon I can
    get back over there… :-)

  • ShannonOD

    I completely agree on the South Indian dishes, although I didn't make it to
    the south, so I am sure that there were a bunch of specialties that I missed
    out on. When I get back to India I definitely starting the exploration in
    the south :-) Those crispy dosas and street samosas are just too alluring –
    hope you found a good substitute for lunch in South America! :-)

  • ShannonOD

    Thanks for the correction – I had no idea. One of the restaurants in the
    north told us we couldnt order a dosa because the Tandoor oven was down!
    Chalk that up to being a tourist I guess :-)

    All of those curries you describe sound absolutely amazing – I am a sucker
    for any of the coconut curries and dishes, so you have certainly given a few
    fantastic ones for me to add to my list for next time I'm in the country!
    I'll have to keep a keen eye out for the Ishtoo if I'm in any more homey
    environments. Thanks again for the feedback, you have me excited to get back
    to India and try some new dishes :-)

  • ShannonOD

    I hear you – it's after writing these entries that I decided that Indian
    foods were top on my list of restaurants to find when I was in NYC these
    past couple days! You're lucky to live in a big city with a lot of great
    choices!! :-)

  • ShannonOD

    I'm not from the particularly deep south, but I definitely know what you
    mean – there are still not a lot of great choices for Indian restaurants in
    the places that I have lived in Florida – some of my “home” friends would be
    perfectly mystified if I suggested going for Indian! :-)

  • What a fabulous post… I love Indian food and I'm happy that it seems to be going more mainstream in many cities. Where I grew up in the states (deep south), you were considered sort of weird if you liked it.

    The spices are really good for you

    • ShannonOD

      I'm not from the particularly deep south, but I definitely know what you
      mean – there are still not a lot of great choices for Indian restaurants in
      the places that I have lived in Florida – some of my “home” friends would be
      perfectly mystified if I suggested going for Indian! :-)

  • As soon as I read the post I had a feeling it would be the same place! I remember sitting upstairs at Natraj's as the only foreigner there as well and loving every minute…two, three, four servings…I couldn't stop!

  • brookevstheworld

    So hungry. Waiting for dinner and tummy grumbling extra loud now :)

  • brookevstheworld

    So hungry. Waiting for dinner and tummy grumbling extra loud now :)

    • ShannonOD

      Mission accomplished then, enjoy dinner. ;-)

  • Chicken Saag. Veggie Samosa. Turka daal. Palak paneer.

    Oh my god. I LOVE INDIAN.
    Any other questions?

  • Sofia

    I LOVE Indian food, especially Thali!! Have never tried the dosas though, I haven't heard of them until now. Will definitely look out for them next time I eat Indian.
    Actually I just wrote a blog about the best countries to visit for vegetarian food lovers, and India is by far number one, the choices are just endless..

  • ShannonOD

    Oh man! You definitely need to try a dosa at the next opportunity. I was
    traveling w/my cousin and it is her absolutely favorite Indian dish. As for
    the vegetarian countries – you are so right, it was pretty fabulous to
    travel there and have endless, endless foodie choices. :-)

  • ShannonOD

    With you on the palak paneer – with all that I have tried, I still come back
    to it as my fav too :-) Your carnivorous self is on your own with the
    Chicken Saag – blech ;-)

  • Chicken Saag. Veggie Samosa. Turka daal. Palak paneer.

    Oh my god. I LOVE INDIAN.
    Any other questions?

    • ShannonOD

      With you on the palak paneer – with all that I have tried, I still come back
      to it as my fav too :-) Your carnivorous self is on your own with the
      Chicken Saag – blech ;-)

  • Sofia

    I LOVE Indian food, especially Thali!! Have never tried the dosas though, I haven't heard of them until now. Will definitely look out for them next time I eat Indian.
    Actually I just wrote a blog about the best countries to visit for vegetarian food lovers, and India is by far number one, the choices are just endless..

    • ShannonOD

      Oh man! You definitely need to try a dosa at the next opportunity. I was
      traveling w/my cousin and it is her absolutely favorite Indian dish. As for
      the vegetarian countries – you are so right, it was pretty fabulous to
      travel there and have endless, endless foodie choices. :-)

  • ShannonOD

    Mission accomplished then, enjoy dinner. ;-)

  • DavenDeb

    Thali's are our favorite too. I love how the food just keeps on coming. More scoops of rice, more curries, more anything you want. I am always overstuffed when leaving the restaurant. People say that you lose weight in India, Dave and I gained weight!!! (yep, we are a little on the piggy side:) I can't get enough of paneer.

  • ShannonOD

    I am right there with you on the gaining weight…at least I did until I
    started getting sick regularly – perhaps that's why everyone says they lose
    weight too! So perhaps it's a sign you guys are doing well on that front
    :-)

  • DavenDeb

    Thali's are our favorite too. I love how the food just keeps on coming. More scoops of rice, more curries, more anything you want. I am always overstuffed when leaving the restaurant. People say that you lose weight in India, Dave and I gained weight!!! (yep, we are a little on the piggy side:) I can't get enough of paneer.

    • ShannonOD

      I am right there with you on the gaining weight…at least I did until I
      started getting sick regularly – perhaps that's why everyone says they lose
      weight too! So perhaps it's a sign you guys are doing well on that front
      :-)

  • I remember that I was so hesitant before to try Indian cuisine but I changed right after I had some. Its the thought of trying the unknown that got me scared.

  • ShannonOD

    I dream about Indian food – it's hands down a fav! :-) Glad you had the
    guts to try it!

  • I remember that I was so hesitant before to try Indian cuisine but I changed right after I had some. Its the thought of trying the unknown that got me scared.

    • ShannonOD

      I dream about Indian food – it's hands down a fav! :-) Glad you had the
      guts to try it!

  • manuchettan

    It is with a very broad smile that I read this entry. I can't actually stop smiling. It feels so nice that all the people here had nice experience with the humble Indian cuisine. It is a matter of immense happiness for a local like me. I too, like Mary, am brought up in the deep South and yes, the taste of local food there is exotic. I have been to Udaipur a couple of years ago. Dinner at Natraj restaurant was a mouth-watering treat. I like to share my blog here.

    http://creativefactory.blogspot.com

    • ShannonOD

      The food in India is truly one of those things that I wax poetic about – and
      the southern food, oh so delicious. I truly have not met a single traveler
      who does not rave about the eating experience in India – like the people it
      is varied and completely unique.

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