Last updated on November 11, 2021
The 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—if you’re looking for a more comprehensive list, this is explainer on ordering in Indian restaurants is a good start!.
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
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
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
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.
Indian food also makes use of curd as an accompaniment to spicy dishes. A dollop 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.
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.