India is one of the easiest places to be vegetarian. We use a lot of pasteurised butter (ghee) or cream in our food so being vegan is a little hard, but vegetarian, that is super easy.
Imagine walking into a restaurant and seeing a menu that has the following dishes: veg paneer kadai, veg paneer tikka masala, veg jalfrezi, veg kolhapuri, the list goes on. Naturally, many foreign visitors have absolutely no idea what constitutes these dishes.
While thinking about this article, it wasn't hard to look at it from a personal perspective (more on ours later), but as tastes in food are about as varied as tastes come, we thought it best to rope in some authorities on the subject too.
First up, we spoke to Nikhil Merchant, a restaurateur, food journo and gourmand-turned-gastronome who blogs over at Nonchalant Gourmand; the blog is a feast in itself, both in words and pictures, so be sure to have a look.
We asked Nikhil for his favourite Indian veg dishes and he came back with the following list: Paper dosa, daal makhani and misal pav.
A daal dish and a dosa may be familiar to most, but few non-Indians will know misal pav, a delicious Maharashtrian dish most often had for breakfast, involving a spicy, sprouted bean curry and some heavily buttered pav. Delicious!
We also asked Nikhil to give us 'one city that is a must-visit for veg food': "Mumbai - extremely cosmopolitan with a mix of some of the tastiest vegetarian regional cuisine from around India. Mumbai has a vegetarian culture in most areas and it's one place in which you can definitely find a variety of veg food."
As Mumbai lovers, we can't argue with that!
Next up, hoping this time for some validation of our own choices (!), we asked our friends over at wowtables.com. Check them out next time you plan on eating out; dare we say it, they're kinda like Tripzuki but for restaurants.
Deepa Jain is a co-founder there, and again we asked for her three favourite veg dishes and surprisingly we got a match with one of Nikhil's: daal makhani, veg galauti kebab and paneer butter masala. Two daal makhanis can't be wrong!
As for the best city for vegetarian food, Deepa chose Bangalore. "You'll find amazing Indian as well as international cuisines along with loads of freshly brewed beers!"
Lastly, we spoke to Reshmy at Bombay Chowparty, a blog that is absolute heaven for foodies - especially those with an interest in Indian food - and packed with great insight and images.
Reshmy interestingly had a lot to say and pointed out the hopelessness of the exercise:
"After racking my brains, my conclusion is that picking five is rather futile and reductive of the immensity of what this cuisine has to offer...there is always so much more to explore and discover. And so while I cannot pick the best, I can share a few favourites". She followed with this fascinating list:
• Kachori, kaddu ki sabzi with mooli salad (Uttar Pradesh)
• Bhalla papdi chaat in the summer and aaloo tikki in the winter (Delhi)
• Ulli theeyal (Kerala)
• Undhiyo poori (Gujarat)
• Loochi aur cholar daal (Bengal)
• Onion rava dosa (Tamil Nadu)
• Daal baati (Rajasthan)
• Kulfi falooda (Delhi)
• Makki roti aur sarson ka saag (Punjab)
So if there's anything to take away from this exercise, it's that everybody in India has an opinion on vegetarian food, and it's certainly not the marginalised niche that is so often the case in Europe and other regions.
Also, perhaps not surprisingly, it's clear that everybody loves a good daal!
So in our personal opinion, and while this may be a list of our favourite five Indian vegetarian dishes, it is by no means an exhaustive selection, as evidenced by the far more learned opinions above. However, we had to add our own favourites as a guide and see where it takes you:
The dosa as a dish is quite unique in Indian cuisine in that it has so many versions. Masala dosa, for example, with a filling of potatoes and tomatoes cooked with Indian spices such as cumin seeds, turmeric and chili, is simply delicious. In Mumbai, you get a lot more variants and vendors will add cheese and other ingredients to cater to a wider crowd (and let's be honest, cheese makes everything taste better!).
Dosas are best consumed as street food, they are mostly (but not always) vegetarian and always freshly cooked.
For excellent dosas in Indian cities check out MTR in Bangalore, Saarvana Bhavan in Delhi, or in Mumbai find a small stall called Mohandas at Dharam Palace in Girgaum.
A typical Indian menu will have a few paneer dishes. Typical examples include palak paneer, which is paneer cooked with spinach, and paneer kadai, cooked with tomatoes and spices.
Our personal favourite is paneer tikka, a mouthwatering dish with the cheese in big square chunks, marinated with a range of spices, stuck on a skewer with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions, then set on a coal grill and served once the outside layer is nice and crispy and the inside is soft and succulent. For authenticity have this with chopped raw onions, a piece of lime and some green mint-coriander chutney.
Paneer is best had in Delhi or north India, where the cheese is softer and melts in your mouth. Check out fancy fine-dining restaurants like Nil in Mumbai and Delhi Darbar in Delhi, or head to street food stalls like Ayubs in Mumbai or Khan Chacha in Delhi; all serve excellent paneer dishes. At Ayubs try the paneer tikka roll (like a gyro with wholewheat bread), and at Delhi Darbar try a paneer tikka masala with some naan.
Pani Puri/Gol Gappa
Pani puri aka gol gappa, phoolki or puchkas are similar yet different versions of the same dish that originated from the Magadh region of India.
This is one of the most popular street snacks in India. Puri in this sense means round, hollow balls, deep fried and crisp and then filled with expert precision with a mixture of raw mango and tamarind water, chilli and coriander water, and a combination of mashed potato, onion and chickpeas. Intended to be consumed in one bite to deliver a wonderful burst of flavour.
Pani puri is believed to contribute to a good immune system and pani puri eaters will often claim not to fall ill because of this.
Tripzuki contributor Harsh was born in Mumbai and every single Mumbaiker loves this dish, so our list could never be complete without it.
"Living internationally for a few months, the one dish I craved was pav bhaji." Pav bhaji is only to be had in Mumbai and nowhere else. Head to Sukh Sagar near Chowpatty Beach, or to the very famous Sardar Pav Bhaji near Bombay central station. Be aware that people with cholesterol problems should stay away from Sardar, it is truly a butter overload!
We realize that we should mention at least one sweet dish in our list. This one is eggless and though famous in certain parts of northern India it is now available everywhere. In ancient India, it was called kundalika or jal-vallika.
Jalebi is made by first deep-frying a wheat flour batter in winding circular shapes and then soaking them in sugar syrup, lime juice and saffron. The result is a melt-in-the-mouth sweet that is best served hot.
Now go forth and eat!!