Welcome to the Ultimate Vegan Guide to Indian Cooking, featuring Vegan & Vegetarian Indian Classics
India’s diverse cuisine is rich in flavors, colors, ingredients, and spices. Its influence throughout the millennia has spread beyond the Indian subcontinent to other regions, most notably the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, the British Isles, Fiji, and the Caribbean. Today, Indian food is enjoyed by people all over the world. Having traveled in 26 countries and counting, I have never been in a city or town that didn’t have an Indian restaurant. Part of the reason for the proliferation of Indian restaurants is that in addition to being diverse and delicious, Indian is also one of the most vegetarian-friendly cuisines in the world. Look at the menu at almost any Indian restaurant and you’ll find delicacies that are sure to please vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Indian food is also relatively easy to make at home. But what if you want to take your Indian cooking a step further and make it completely vegan? That’s totally doable! In this blog, we’ll take a look at some Indian dishes, accompaniments, desserts, and drinks that are traditionally cooked with eggs or dairy and explore how to make them Vegan. Specifically, we’ll discuss how to make vegan paneer tikka masala, palak paneer, dal makhani, malai kofta, raita, barfi, kulfi, ras malai, mango lassi, and masala chai. We’ll also discuss some common issues or concerns that you might come across when trying to veganize these dishes and how you can go about solving them.
Paneer Tikka Masala
Paneer is an Indian cottage cheese that doesn’t melt at high temperatures. You might remember from one of our previous blogs that tikka masala is a spicy, creamy, tomato-based sauce or gravy. In place of paneer, you can use extra-firm marinated tofu.
Common Concern: What if the tofu is too soggy?
The tofu should be drained and pressed to remove as much moisture as possible. This is essential for a crispy texture. Adding cornstarch is also recommended for the crispy tofu texture. The tofu should be nice and crispy before you marinate it.
Remember that tofu soaks up all the flavors of whatever it’s cooked in, so including plenty of spices in this recipe is key. You can include green bell peppers, coriander, garlic, onions, turmeric, garam masala, ground nutmeg, clove, cumin, and red chili powder, among others.
Common Concern: How can I make the sauce creamy if I’m not using any dairy?
For your creamy sauce, you can use soy yogurt, coconut Milk with flour, or cashew-based cream. Cashew cream will probably make for the richest sauce. Almond-based cream also works, but keep in mind that if you’re making it from scratch, it will take a longer time to become creamy. In the case that you choose to use coconut milk, make sure you use the full-fat version. Using a low-fat or fat-free version will make the sauce too thin and overly tomato-y.
Common Concern: I’m trying to avoid soy. Is there a way I can make this recipe without tofu?
If you want to make this completely soy free, you can use cauliflower or chickpeas instead of tofu. In fact, anything chunky could work. If you’re using chickpeas, adding in some cornstarch or arrowroot flour can help make your sauce thicker. You might also need to add more garam masala to the sauce after simmering with the chickpeas. If you wanted to use vegetables instead of tofu, rub them with the marinade until cooked, and then only let them simmer in the sauce for 2-3 minutes. That way, the sauce won’t be overpowered by the vegetable flavor.
Another classic paneer dish, palak paneer involves a spinach-based cream sauce. Just like with paneer tikka masala, palak paneer can be made vegan by using tofu.
Common Concern: How can I make my vegan palak paneer taste as close as possible to a traditional palak paneer?
All of the same considerations as above apply here when you’re making a tofu palak paneer. You’ll want to marinate the tofu for a few days (you can do so with nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and salt or coconut and vinegar) as tofu needs fat and a bit of acidity to be as close as possible to the original paneer. Some people use tempeh in place of paneer, but tofu makes the dish taste creamier.
Common Concern: What if I want to make a soy-free, vegan palak paneer?
Potatoes also make for a great substitute to paneer.
Common Concern: How do I make the sauce smooth and creamy?
For the cream at the end, you can use coconut milk, coconut cream, or cashew cream. Not to worry—the coconut and cashew flavor or subtle (if at all). You could also use cauliflower simmered in a nut milk and pureed into a creamy sauce, which will add body and richness to the spinach. If you’re concerned about the cauliflower-based cream not being smooth enough, you could use a blender. You could also do away with the creaminess entirely if you wanted to.
Dal makhani is whole black lentils slow-cooked in butter and cream. Some dal makhani recipes also include red kidney beans (rajma).
Common Concern: How can I make a creamy dal makhani without using any dairy?
To make this recipe vegan and to get a similar taste, you can add a mixture of almond milk and cashew milk. You could also make cashew cream from scratch by blending soaked raw cashews with water until completely smooth. Alternatively, you could use soy milk or any other non-dairy milk. Of course, the cashew cream will make the dish a lot creamier. Coconut oil and coconut milk are also options, but keep in mind that you will taste the coconut flavor, especially if you’re using coconut milk. Another way you can make this recipe creamier without actually using cream is to take a little bit of the dal and blending it in a blender to get a smooth paste. Then add this blended dal to the pot with the rest of the dal and let it warm until you get a creamy consistency. You can add a dollop of vegan butter or olive oil at the end.
Common Concern: My vegan dal makhani looks lighter than non-vegan dal makhani.
If you find that it ends up being lighter and color than a non-vegan dal makhani, try letting it simmer a little longer.
Kofta is fried dumpling balls usually made of mashed potatoes and vegetables. Malai kofta is these fried dumpling balls cooked in a smooth, creamy, onion-tomato gravy. The recipe may or may not include grated paneer as well.
Common Concern: How do I make the gravy creamy if I’m not using any dairy?
For the gravy, you can use coconut milk with cashew powder. You can add as much cashew powder as needed to achieve the desired thickness. You’ll want the coconut milk to be full fat. You can also use full-fat coconut cream. Cashew cream made from scratch is another option. If you go this route, make sure you soak the cashews for at least 2 hours.
Common Concern: I don’t like cashews. Is there anything else I can use?
If cashews are not your thing, you can use peeled almonds instead. Omitting the creaminess all together and just cooking the kofta in the tomato sauce is also an option if that appeals to you.
Raita is salted yogurt mixed together with vegetables, fruits, and/or herbs (usually cucumber and mint). It is served as a condiment in Indian cuisine, particularly to cool the palate and mellow out some of the spices, which some might find overpowering. There are several different alternatives to dairy yogurt that you can use. The first is cashew yogurt.
Common Concern: I can’t find cashew yogurt. Can I make it from scratch?
You can make cashew yogurt from scratch by soaking half a cup of raw cashews in ¾ cups of water for at least 30 minutes. You can blend this with any spices or garnishes you’re going to use for your raita until you have a smooth paste.
Common Concern: I don’t like cashews. Is there something else I can use?
Another option is thick and creamy coconut milk. If your coconut milk has solidified, beat it until you have a smooth, creamy mixture. Drained tofu is yet another option. You could place tofu along with some lemon juice to give it a tangy flavor in a blender and blend until smooth.
Common Concern: What if my tofu mixture is too thick?
If your mixture is too thick, you can always thin it out by adding a bit of unflavored soy or almond milk.
Barfi is a dense, milk-based Indian dessert. The main ingredients are condensed milk and sugar, which are cooked in a vessel until solidified. Barfi comes in a variety of flavors, including mango, coconut, pistachio, cashew, and peanut. Usually, they are cut into a square or diamond shape. An easy way to make vegan barfi is to mix together vegan condensed milk, vegan coconut milk powder, unsweetened desiccated coconut, coconut milk, and some coconut oil, vegan butter, or margarine. Keep in mind that not all coconut milk powder is completely vegan, as some contain lactose from dairy. For this reason, be sure to read the labels carefully if you are trying to go for a fully vegan recipe.
Common Concern: What if I can’t find coconut milk, or I don’t want the coconut flavor in my barfi?
Any non-dairy milk would work, just as long as it’s not too thin.
Common Concern: I can’t find non-dairy condensed milk. Can I make it from scratch?
You can make non-dairy condensed milk by soaking cashews in water for a few hours and then blending it with almond milk.
Common Concern: I can’t find [vegan] coconut milk powder. What else can I use?
In place of coconut milk powder, you could also use cashew flour. Almond flour is not as good an option here because it doesn’t dissolve into the milk easily or work well as a thickener, whereas cashew mixes well, thickens, and adds rich volume. Regular flour works, but you may need to add in some extra oil or vegan butter/margarine.
Kulfi is a frozen dairy Indian dessert, often referred to as Indian ice cream. It is denser and creamier than American ice cream. The most popular flavors are cream, rose, mango, cardamom, saffron, and pistachio. Typically, it is prepared by evaporating sweetened and flavored milk via slow cooking with almost continuous stirring and then freezing it. You can use any kind of nut milk or non-dairy milk, or even a combination of non-dairy or nut milk and nut creams, to make a vegan kulfi.
Common Concern: I’m concerned that a nut milk or cream will ruin the flavor of my kulfi.
With all the flavors in a kulfi, you don’t have to worry about the milk flavor taking over. However, some people worry that coconut milk or cream is too overpowering, in which case cashew is a better option.
Common Concern: My mixture is too thin. What do I do?
Adding cornstarch or any kind of nut flour will make your mixture thicker. You may need to boil longer if you are using cashew flour. Also, remember that it is important that you are using the full-fat version of any kinds of milk or creams.
Common Concern: Can I make any nut creams from scratch?
Making nut-based creams from scratch is an option (you can see guidelines for doing so above). If you are using any salted nuts to make your own nut-based creams, make sure you rinse the nuts in a sieve to wash out the salt. You can also push off some of the inner skins of the nuts at the same time.
Ras malai has been described as a rich cheesecake without the crust. Essentially, it is soft and spongy cottage cheese patties served in a saffron-flavored creamy milk. For the patties, you could use tofu that has been blended with water until it becomes homogenous, then baked until it is just barely solidified. Then shape them into balls, using a bit of flour if needed. You could also break the tofu into small pieces.
Common Concern: What if I want a completely soy-free, vegan ras malai?
Another option is to use mashed sweet potatoes. Yet another option is to combine chopped soft dates, cashews, almonds, and sesame seeds. If you’re not a fan of dates, you can always just use more nuts or sugar.
Common Concern: How can I make the sauce creamy if I’m not using any dairy?
You can use creamy soy milk or almond milk blended with cashews for the cream sauce
Mango lassi is a popular Indian drink made with yogurt, water, spices, and of course, mango. Sometimes it is flavored with cumin. One way to make mango lassi vegan is by using a non-dairy milk, preferably with a vanilla flavor.
Common Concern: My lassi is too thick.
Some people prefer their lassi thick and creamy, but if you want to make it thinner, you can just add more milk or coconut water. Cashew milk will probably be the thinnest milk while still holding texture.
Common Concern: My lassi is too thin.
Soy or nut-based yogurts combined with non-dairy milk are another options. You could also use blended silken tofu for more creaminess.
Common Concern: I want a to make a vegan mango lassi, but vegan yogurt doesn’t have the probiotics I need.
If you want to get the probiotics that traditional yogurt has, you can add in a probiotic powder to your lassi.
Masala chai is an essential part of many Indians’ days. It is a spiced, sweetened black tea mixed with milk. To make a vegan masala chai, simply substitute the milk with a full-fat non-dairy milk. Keep in mind, though, that the taste will change, because some of the additives in plant-based milk change the texture and consistency of chai. For Indians who are used to having traditional masala chai and are trying to go vegan, getting used to vegan masala chai might be your toughest adjustment.
Common Concern: How can I make my beloved masala chai vegan while tasting as close as possible to what I’m used to?
Almond milk, particularly Almond Breeze, is most recommended because it adds the most creaminess. This creaminess is hard to come by with a lot of other brands or with homemade plant-based milk. Another good thing about almond milk is that you don’t have to dilute it with water like you usually have to with dairy milk since dairy milk is oftentimes a bit too thick and creamy. If you want to use cashew milk, be aware that heat thickens up cashew milk really quickly, which will affect the texture of the chai. Another thing to note is that when making masala chai you traditionally boil the milk with the tea. You do not want to do that when using non-dairy milk. Instead, boil the tea with the sugar and spices, and then add the milk.
Common Concern: Can I make a vegan masala chai without any milk at all?
Doing without the milk entirely is an option, in which case you would just need to step it up on the spices.
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Written by: Pavita Singh
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