(Cooking with whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plant ingredients)
Indian cooking – Eliminating the dairy
Whereas Indian vegetarian cooking is mostly vegan, some cuisines do use dairy extensively. However, it’s easy enough to eliminate it and still have similar dishes that taste great.
Ghee – Most Indian vegetable dishes and dals can be cooked without ghee or butter. A small amount of cashew butter, say in a gajjar halwa or dal makhani can give the flavour of ghee. For that extra flavour on chappaties see our vegan ghee recipe made from desiccated coconut.
Cream – If the recipe calls for cream, the cream can be replaced with cashew-nut paste – made by grinding raw soaked cashew nuts and adding a little water. Or cashew butter and water can be blended to get the desired consistency of a cream. The advantage of nut butter over cream or oil is that it is made of the whole substance and so also contains fibre. It gives the flavour with lower calories for the same volume. Cashew butter and cream taste remarkably like the dairy versions.
Curds – If the recipe calls for curd, you can replace it with peanut or soy curd or even coconut milk. For example – curd rice is easily made with peanut curd. Raitas can be made in coconut milk or peanut curd, chaas can be made with peanut curd, kadhi can be made with peanut curd or coconut milk.
Milk in desserts – This can be easily replaced with coconut milk or nut milk for kheer type desserts. Some desserts can be made with coconut milk and sesame butter with their thick consistency.
In most Indian cooking dates can replace sugar without any problem. In desserts, one can make kheer with raisins and dates and other dried fruits. Or dried dates can be ground to make a dry powdery sweetener (khareek), like jaggery. Both jaggery and date syrup have more nutritive value than sugar, which has just caloric value. Both contain iron, and other vitamins and minerals but lack fibre. Both are refined (not whole) products and should be used minimally or not at all. Honey, stevia and artificial sweeteners should be avoided.
Nowadays we see many ‘healthy snacks’ available in health food stores made crisp in the oven. We find baked sev, puris and chakris instead of the fried versions. Sprouts bhel, poha, idlis, dosas etc can be made with no oil and are tasty options. The famous ‘Bombay vegetable sandwiches’ can easily be made without butter and with whole-wheat bread. The trick is to put coconut in the chutney to give it the richness and the fat that butter gives.
It’s also possible to make many ‘fried’ foods in the oven. Tikkis can be placed on a lightly greased (with nut butter) tray and turned instead of frying. Peanut or sesame powder for coating can achieve browning or crispiness due to their oil content. Koftas and pakoras can be made by the following method – mix ingredients according to your favourite recipe and add a pinch of baking soda. Then steam them in the mini idli maker. When cooked, place on a greased tray and bake. Turn over once to cook both sides evenly. This will make them soft on the inside and crisp on the outside. Air fryers are also helpful in achieving similar results.
Tadkas can also be done with no oil, just heat the pot, put in the mustard seeds and cumin seeds and they will pop. Then turn off the stove and add the dry spices and roast lightly to bring out the flavour. It’s important to turn off the stove otherwise dry spices could burn. Masalas can be roasted over a slow flame on a heated thick iron pan or tawa stirring gently with a wooden spoon till their colour changes. This will bring out their flavour. Roasted masalas can be stored in an airtight container. Wet masalas can also be roasted slowly in the pan.
Onions and garlic can be ‘fried’ by chopping and putting a little salt over them so that they lose water. Now they can be ‘fried’ in their own juices till they turn brown. Oil is not needed at all. Another method is to roast onions and garlic in the oven instead of ‘frying’ them. To do this, place them whole, without peeling in the oven at a low temperature, say 120 – 150 degrees C. They roast slowly – taking about an hour. Large quantities can be done together and they can be stored in the fridge till needed for about 10 days. Remove the outer crispy layer and chop to use only as needed. Garlic cooks a little faster than onions. Whenever you read ‘fry onions till golden’, replace them with the roasted ones.
Vegetables should be cooked by steaming. For this, only a small quantity of water needs to be put in the steamer so that it can be utilised later and not thrown away. The process is very quick. Vegetables should not be overcooked but left a little crunchy. While steaming, lemon juice, garlic, onions and herbs can be added to impart a delicate flavour to whatever is being steamed.
One can also keep an onion broth or vegetable stock ready in the fridge. An onion stock can be made by chopping 6 onions and putting them in a pot with 15 cups of water and some peppercorns, a bay leaf or two and a couple of cloves. This is boiled and simmered till the liquid is reduced to half. This can be strained or used as-is. This can be used to impart flavour to the cooking in the absence of oil during steaming as in the case of rice for a pulao.
Keeping the fibre
For healthy cooking, it’s important to keep the ingredients as whole as possible. It’s the fibre that cleans the intestines as well as helps the arteries remain free of cholesterol. Many vegetables and fruits that are commonly peeled need not be. Gourds, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers all need not be peeled. Also, white rice and white flour (maida) are devoid of many nutrients due to the removal of the outer coating. Sugar, oil and many other substances are refined products and are devoid of many nutrients. As far as possible, all foods should be eaten whole.
One good way of imparting the flavour of oil is to use oilseeds in cooking. For example, cooking vegetables Maharashtrian style with grated coconut and peanuts is a great way. Sesame seeds can also be used. Another way is to add peanut butter or sesame butter or other nut butter to the dish.
Other than the Indian subcontinent, all of Asia never traditionally used dairy, not even our closest neighbours like Sri Lanka and Burma. Once you have got something vegetarian on the Asian menu, it is necessarily vegan. Oriental recipes are easy to make and healthy.
One usually identifies Western cooking with a lot of meat and dairy, but they are not necessarily mandatory. You will see several Western recipes with alternatives. Nutritional yeast (different from baker’s yeast) is a good substitute for the cheesy taste, and several such recipes have been included. This ingredient is light, easy to carry and to store.
Seitan and soy protein provide the high protein and texture of meat, which is essential to some during the transition. Protein is like an addiction – our body does not need as much protein as we take and in fact, it is harmful. Seitan is made from wheat gluten (the protein of wheat) and soy protein can be had in the form of tofu, tempeh, soy nuggets and soy milk and curds. Some of these products we can make at home and their recipes are available in “Meat and dairy alternatives”
For more, please see our vegan recipe playlist on YouTube
To a novice, all this may seem very complicated but in reality, most households have 7-10 favourite dishes that they make over and over again. The recipes here are just to give you ideas. You are encouraged to tweak them and make dishes suitable for your own palate. Cooking is a creative art form, and not everyone can be a chef. But just as all of us can doodle even though we are not artists, all of us can cook food, which is fun, healthy and appetising! You don’t have to be a professional. It just needs some will to spend a bit of time and look after your own well-being and that of your family.