India is an excellent place to be a vegetarian. It’s a myth that the majority of Indians stick to a plant-based diet (only around 20 percent are vegetarian), but it is true that there’s a vast number of meatless dishes to choose from.
Like other aspects of Indian cuisine, vegetarian options are influenced by the country’s diverse culture, traditions, religions, and geography. It also, just like pav in Goa, is influenced by the cooking traditions of foreigners. Meatless dishes burst with spices and flavors, including in vegetarian versions of classic curry dishes and biryani.
You could spend a lifetime sampling all of India’s vegetarian cuisine. To get started, try these first.
In bazaars in northern Indian cities, you’ll find cooks pulling deep-fried puffy puri (unleavened bread) out of kadhai (wok). The puris are served with hot and spicy aaloo bhaji (potatoes) to make puri-bhaji. It’s often eaten for breakfast or lunch, and is a common street food. Variations can be found depending on where you’re at. In Bengal, it’s made with wheat flour to make luchi puri-aloo poshto (refined flour puri with potato and poppy seeds), and no religious occasion or festival in India goes without puris served with ghughni (chickpea curry) or sweet suji halwa (dessert made of semolina).
2. Masala bhat and other flavored rice
Rice is a staple in India. It’s mixed with different vegetables, spices, nuts, and sauces for flavorful vegetarian dishes. In the north, you’ll find pulao (a type of pilaf), matar paneer (peas and paneer cheese in a tomato sauce), tahri (potato and spice rice), and jeera (cumin) rice. In the south, coconut and curry leaves are used to add a zing to lemon rice, tamarind rice, curd rice, and bisi bele bath (hot lentil rice dish). Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra have spicy masala bhat (pictured).
3. Stuffed parathas
Paratha is unleavened flatbread made with wheat flour, and it often comes stuffed with a variety of vegetarian options. Just the sight of melting dollops of white butter on crispy aaloo paratha (potato-stuffed paratha) is droolworthy. It’s a filling breakfast when paired with pickles and plain yogurt or lassi (a sweet or salty yogurt drink), but you can have parathas any time of the day. Vegetarian fillings include paneer, gobhi (cauliflower), mooli (radish), pyaaz (onion), pudina (mint), methi (fenugreek), chana dal (split chickpea), and sattu (ground roasted chickpea).
4. Chhole bhature
Chhole bhature is a chickpea masala served with fried bread. It’s big on taste, but is far from a healthy option. Still, this dish from the state of Punjab is thoroughly loved across India. Sometimes chhole is also served with stuffed kulcha (soft and fluffy leavened bread stuffed with vegetables or paneer). It’s commonly eaten for breakfast.
5. Idli sambhar
Idli sambar is a popular breakfast dish from south India. Idli are a type of savory rice cake made with steamed rice and gram batter. Sambar is a vegetable curry with lentils, pigeon peas, and a seasoning made with black mustard, asafoetida, curry leaves, and tamarind pulp. Together, they make a filling first meal.
6. Masala dosa
Dosas are like a type of thin, rice batter crepe. Masala dosas are stuffed with potatoes, spices, sambar, and other vegetables. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it’s endlessly customizable. Some places get creative with their dosas, filling them with paneer or even chow mein.
7. Samosa chaat
Samosa chaat is a layered snack made with samosas (a fried pastry filled with potato), chutney, yogurt, and fried potato. If you like it, don’t stop there. Chaat is a snack category unto itself with countless types made with different ingredients — but always with something crunchy, tangy, and spicy. It can be found pretty much anywhere, and you can base a whole trip around sampling the different vegetarian chaats. To get a taste of how different chaats can be, try aloo tikki (pan-fried potato), dahi vada (made with fried balls of flour), and tomato chaats.
Kheer, or payasam if you’re in the south, is a sweet rice pudding made with milk and sugar. It’s cooked in many temples and offered as prasadam (a vegetarian religious offering), and is often served at festivals and weddings. In many places, babies are given kheer as their first weaning food. Though rice kheer is common, sawaiyyan (vermicelli), saboodana (a starch made from the center of certain palms), and sooji (semolina) kheer can also be found.
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