Vegan travel. Part one: India and Sri Lanka

Travelling as a vegan is a major challenge but travelling as a vegan on a budget is even more difficult. Without some degree of flexibility and a bit of preparation, you might face a difficult choice: sticking to the principles and facing malnutrition or accepting that sometimes despite all the efforts you cannot have 100% pure vegan diet and you could just try to match it as closely as possible. Luckily, some regions are more vegan-friendly than others and it’s hard to find a better place to travel as a vegan than South Asia.

A basket at the Indian market, full of various green vegetables, aubergines and tomatoes
The wide variety of vegetables on the Indian market

The main risks for vegan travelers

Lack of vegan alternatives

If you can afford visiting only purely vegan, tourists- oriented restaurants during your trip and those are available on your route: good for you. If you’re on a budget and/or tend to get off the beaten track, this luxury might not be available, though.

The elegant interior of a vegan restaurant in Pai, Thailand. Two vegan dishes are lying on the nearest table and there is a Buddhist altar in the background.

Despite your best efforts, you might end up having food containing fish sauce, eggs or even dried fish and meat broth. It could be the effect of miscommunication or a wrong (too optimistic) assumption regarding the dish you were served.

A plastic table full of steel plates and bowls, some covered with sheets of polyethylene , containing vegetarian dishes, rice and flat bread. A cheap eatery in Haputale, Sri Lanka.

On rare occasions, you might be in a remote location with no vegan options available at all. A bit of flexibility in such moments would make your life much easier.

Lack of healthy alternatives

Come to terms with the fact that your diet might not be particularly healthy during the trip. I often had to either skip a meal or satisfy myself with savoury or sweet snacks. Each time I traveled long-term in Asia (first as a vegetarian and then as a vegan), I lost quite a lot of weight. However, I believe it was due to a combination of factors, including diet, climate and intense physical activity.

The smiling author standing on the street, holding a deep fried Sri Lankan doughut called vada in her hand.
When the savoury doughnut replaces a meal…

The biggest mistake I made was the optimistic faith in the diversity and nutritional value of local cuisines. I didn’t even consider taking with me any diet supplements. After a few months of far from optimal diet, I finally bought local spirulina powder in India. It served me as a protein and iron source, both of which can be very hard to come by in some regions. Taking powdered vegan protein or super foods on a long trip to Asia is a VERY good idea, even if it feels bulky and heavy in your luggage.

South Asia: a paradise for vegans

South Asia is a paradise for vegans and generally eating like a local should not pose any troubles there. The vegan dishes burst with proteins and a variety of vegetables, including leafy greens. Quite logically, eating vegan food would cost you much less than if you were on a meat diet.

This being said, the concept of veganism is unknown in India. Many Indians are vegetarian and that by definition means they also don’t eat eggs (which already makes it soooo much easier for vegans) but they do love the dairy products. The hidden surprises include ghee (clarified butter), milk and doi (yoghurt), present in many vegetarian dishes.

Indian thali (selection of dishes on a steel plate) including flat breads called chapatis and a few bowls with vegetable dishes and yoghurt.
Veg thali (plate): watch for yoghurt and butter on top of the flat bread

The good news is that ghee is expensive, so most of really budget street eateries wouldn’t use it. The second good news is that the level of English in India is quite good so you have a high chance of communicating your needs successfully. The bad news is that nearly all the Indian sweets are made of milk, ghee or both so your sugar cravings would need to wait for better times.

A plate with Bengali sweets: conch-shaped, cylinder-shaped and round shaped soft, milky sweets
99% of Indian sweets aren’t vegan

It’s important to remember India cannot be treated as a whole. There is a wide variety of cuisines throughout the subcontinent, with some of the states being much more vegan-friendly than others.

Vegetarian’ states: Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Rajastan

Southern state of Tamil Nadu and north-western neighbouring states of Gurajat and Rajastan have predominantly vegetarian population. In fact, it might be difficult to find a restaurant serving meat there. So long as you remember to communicate ‘no ghee, no yoghurt message’, you should be totally at ease there.

South India: Tamil Nadu and Kerala

South Indian food is light and healthy. Lots of breakfast dishes, such as idli (steamed cakes), dosa (thin, crispy pancakes) and uttapam (thick pancakes) are based on fermented rice batter. They’re all vegan, just watch out for a ghee dosa. All the above dishes are served with sambar and coconut chutney which, although looking milky, is also totally vegan.

 Masala dosa: vegan rice flour pancake with potato filling served on a banana leaf with a bowl of sambar and some chutneys
Masala dosa: vegan rice flour pancake with potato filling

The common lunch is thali: a metal plate with a collection of small bowls containing sambar (watery vegetable sauce), rasam (even more watery sour sauce), a few vegetable curries and (always in a separate bowl) yoghurt. All that is served with rice.

South Indian thali: meal on a steel plate, containing rice, crispy poppadam wafer and a selection of small bowls with vegetarian saucy dishes
South Indian thali

Local fried snacks (vada) include spicy doughnuts made of fermented rice batter and small cakes made of lentils (dal vada).

A plate full of vada: deep fried savoury doughnuts from South India
Vada- South Indian vegan deep fried snack

North India: Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab

The North Indian food is exactly the opposite to the Southern. It’s heavy, rich and very meat-oriented. Many vegetarian dishes feature paneer (unpasteurised cheese),  butter or ghee. Finding vegan dishes in those states might be more challenging but by no means not impossible.

North Indian food served on steel dishes: tandoori roti flat bread, alu gobi curry from potatoes and cauliflower and another saucy curry
Alu gobi (potato-cauliflower curry) and a tandoori roti

There are a few cities in that region which, due to their religious significance are vegetarian by law. Those are: Haridwar in Uttarakhand along with Vrindavan and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is another pilgrim city where vegetarian eateries abound.

A ghat in Varanasi at sunrise. A view from above at the boats on Ganges and a man meditating at the stone platform.
The holy city of Varanasi has lots of places catering for vegetarians and vegans

The two dishes you can always bet in northern India on are alu gobi (potato and cauliflower curry) and dal fry (thin sauce of red lentils). Often there would be much more variety of vegan vegetable dishes (sabji). Meals are accompanied with chapati (dry pan flat breads) or naan (clay oven flat bread, sometimes with buttermilk or ghee). Various forms of dal (pulses) are normally vegan but avoid dal makhani (containing butter and cream).

Steel plate with luchis- deep fried puffed breads and potato curry
Deep fried flat bread and potato curry is a typical north Indian breakfast

The breakfast dishes tend to be very heavy: deep fried breads (puri,katchuri) or fried pancakes (parathas) are served with vegan but fiercely spicy and very oily chickpeas sauce.

East India: West Bengal and Orissa

Although fish and sea food is popular in Bengal, there are still ample vegan choices. Unlike in the north-west, ghee or cream aren’t normally used. You should definitely try one of vegetable posto dishes made of ground white poppy seed: tasty and protein- rich. Another ace is mocha– banana flower and echor -unripe jack fruit (resembling meat when cooked). Don’t expect those delicacies at the roadside eatery- you’d need to visit a Bengali restaurant, or home.

A steel bowl full of unripe jack fruit curry, resembling minced red meat
‘Meaty’ unripe jackfruit- tastes much better than it looks

Eastern Himalayas: Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim

A bowl of thukpa- a vegetable noodle soup
Thukpa- a simple noode soup

The Himalayan states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have strong influences from Tibetan cuisine. The dining options are very limited both for vegetarians and meat eaters. You would have a tough time finding anything else than a vegetable thukpa (spicy noodle soup) and vegetable momos (steamed dumplings with cabbage filling).

A steel plate full of momos- Indian dumplings .
Momos- sometimes vegetarian, more often meaty steamed dumpling

The North- East (Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya)

The north-eastern cuisine is very different from the mainland Indian flavours. The food is much more simple and it is based mostly on pork. The restaurants serving Naga (Nagaland), Khasi (Meghalaya) or Meitei (Manipur) cuisine have extremely limited options for vegans. For example, Nagas have some vegetable dishes flavoured with pungent fermented soya or very spicy chilli but those aren’t even normally available in restaurants.

A selection of vegan Naga dishes: chickpea with chilli and boiled green leaf vegetables.
A rare selection of Naga dishes, based on fermented soya or chili

Thankfully, the mainland cuisine is widely available in bigger cities and at touristic destinations. In the rare case the vegetable curries won’t be on the menu, the ubiquitous chow (noodles which can be prepared vegan) is a safe option.

The author hoding in her hand a fork full of chow- Indian style vegetarian noodles
Chow or veg noodles are the safest, if somewhat dull vegan option

Assam’s cuisine, on the other hand, is almost identical to that of their Bengali neighbours so encountering a vegan dish would not cause any problem.

Indian vegan snacks

Throughout the north and central India, you can find a huge selection of vegan snacks: samosas (deep fried pastry filled with spiced mashed potatoes), veg pakoras (various deep fried vegetables in a gram flour batter), pani puri (crispy batter filled with lemon water and mashed potato) or bel puri (puffed rice mixed with onion, cucumber, tamarind water and various salty snacks). The last two contain raw ingredients so are more ‘risky’ than the deep fried pakoras and samosas.

A pani puri/ fuchka seller at his street stall at night.
Pani puri seller: prepare for serving potato and sour water mix with bare hands

Vegan-friendly Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s cuisine somewhat resembles the Indian one.  It’s almost equally friendly to vegans as India. Almost, because unfortunately Sri Lankans use a lot of dry fish in the coastal region and don’t necessarily share this knowledge with unsuspecting customers.

The second problem is that the majority Sinhalese are Buddhist, not Hindu, therefore they don’t believe ‘veg’ dishes shouldn’t contain eggs. Hence bowl-shaped ‘hoppers‘ – Sri-Lankan version of South Indian dosa– could contain eggs.

Breakfast table in Sri Lanka: plates with noodle-like string hoppers and coconut sambal, a platter with watermelon and fruit juice
Noodle-like string hoppers could be served with lentils or coconut with chilli

String hoppers, or Sri Lankan noodles, coconut rotis (thick, flat breads) and coconut milk rice are definitely vegan, though. All the above mentioned dishes are served with coconut sambal (grated coconut with leafy greens or dried red chilli) or dal (lentil sauce).

An aesthetically set breakfast table in Sri Lanka with flat bread rotis, chickpeas, coconut sambal and other dishes and a tray with tea.
Posh breakfast: coconut rotis, chickpeas with coconut and chilli, sambal, veg curries and tea

The most common lunch in the Sri Lankan cheap eateries consists of a selection of vegan, vegetable curries and sambal served with white or red rice.

A plate with rice and various Sri Lankan vegan dishes: dal from lentils,sambal from leafy greens and other vegetable curries
Typical budget lunch: rice with dal, some greens and a spicy sambal

Another ubiquitous Sri Lankan dish is kottu: flat bread chopped into tiny pieces and fried with other ingredients on a hot metal board. A vegan version could be made by request but it usually comes dry and tastes quite horrible (though I tried good ones, too).

Vegetable kottu: chopped flat bread mixed with carrot and other vegetables
Vegan kottu- this one was exceptionally nice

Many of the Sri Lankan deep fried snacks are vegan. Avoid the breaded ones as the batter contains egg. Some of those snacks are filled with meat/fish while others with vegetables so it’s necessary to ask what is inside. Sri Lanka shares with South India vadas (plain deep fried doughnuts) and dal vadas (fried lentil snacks).

A steel plate full of Sri Lankan fried snacks such as doughnut vadas and deep fried pastries.
Roughly half of those fried snacks are vegan

There are many vegan Sri Lankan sweets based on coconut or dried fruit but, to be honest, they are not that exciting.

A flat, brown coconut sweet wrapped in a dry leaf
Coconut sweet wrapped in a leaf

Finally, you might be lucky to find an amazing green drink called kola kenda: traditional Sri Lankan herbal porridge resembling a very thick smoothie. Kola kenda is made of herbs, grated coconut, steamed rice and a pinch of salt. It’s delicious, filling and healthy!

A glass of kola kenda: a green, thick Sri Lankan drink made of rice, coconut and herbs
Herbal rice drink: kola kenda

To sum up, if you’re a vegan and are a bit apprehensive about travel to Asia, choosing India and Sri Lanka for a start would be a great idea.

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