There are three key reasons I choose to travel so frequently.
To refresh my perspective on the world when trivial stresses of Western life creep back in.
To challenge myself constantly, and therefore be reminded that no obstacle is insurmountable.
And to eat.
In the past, I’ve been able to eat everything in sight with reckless abandon. But in 2015, I made the decision to switch to a vegan diet — so sampling every morsel a country has to offer is no longer possible.
India was my first experiment in travelling veganism.
For religious reasons, a large portion of locals practise vegetarianism — around 30% of one billion people — meaning they don’t consume meat or meat stock, animal lard, gelatine, or eggs. All packaged products display either a red or green dot, which clearly indicates whether the food is free of those ingredients.
So, vegetarians, loosen the drawstrings on your pants: you’re going to eat particularly well in India.
Vegans need to be more vigilant.
Milk is everywhere, because cows are everywhere. As India’s sacred animal, cows’ milk is believed to have healing properties. Milk, paneer, curd, butter, cream, or ghee are added to just about every meal — and you can bet your last rupee the thing you forgot to mention is the one that gets unearthed in your vegetable biryani.
And it’s not even just the milk. Cow urine and dung are also widely doused over everything that might warrant a little good karma: streets and doorways, balding heads — some of the more devout locals will even drink cow piss, and dung is flattened and dried into “cakes” that are used for fuelling fires.
But I digress. Back to yummier things.
Being vegan in India is tricky, but it is possible. For those who aren’t as budget-conscious, there are lots of all-vegan restaurants in the bigger cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Udaipur, and so on. (Check out listings on HappyCow or Zomato.)
For cheapskates like me and you, there are the street snacks.
Hope you like potatoes.
(Okay, so not technically a snack…but you can buy these from street stalls, and they’re so cheap and delicious I’ll include them anyway.)
Oh my goodness — thali. How you make thee froth.
Thali is basically a lunchbox. It’s different every time, depending on local specialties. However, there are always consistencies: bottomless chappati/roti/rice, pappadum, some kind of spicy pickle, dahl, an array of cooked and raw vegetables (which may or may not be safe to eat, depending on the water they’ve been washed in), and free refills of curry.
I may well write a post entirely dedicated to thali, one day: it’s just that good. And the varieties are always fun to try — especially if they’ve been made for you by a local family!
Goan thali, Rajasthani thali, Nepalese thali, Gujurati thali, Spitian thali…the list goes on. But no matter what the variety, you’ll get a huge feed for barely more than one or two dollars (60-120 rupees); and you can find them just about everywhere.
I first tried masala dosa (spicy potato-filled crispy pancake) in Malaysia, where approximately one third of the population is Indian — and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Another snack that’s big enough to be a meal, dosas are made from rice or chickpea flour, crisp-fried, and then stuffed to the brim with various fillings. Not all are vegan-friendly, but the potato version is usually a safe bet. (Just check none of the sauces and chutneys contain dairy.)
In Varanasi, I discovered rawa masala dosa (basically Masala Dosa 2.0): made from a combination of semolina, rice, and all-purpose flours, and filled with not only delicious potato, but peas and chunks of coconut. Mm-mm. (Apparently this version is common in Kerala, as well.)
Dosas can be found everywhere, and shouldn’t cost more than a dollar (about 60 rupees).
3. Mumbai/Bombay sandwich
I can’t thank this sandwich enough for the comfort it provided when I was losing half my insides to a month-long bout of gastro. Don’t ask me why I couldn’t stomach the simplest (and most boring) of foods, or even water…but I could eat this.
Found only in Bombay (to my knowledge), this baby could be bought from street stalls surrounding train stations, universities, and — lucky for me — hospitals, and cost 25 rupees (about fifty cents). Varieties differed slightly from stall to stall, but my saving grace contained sliced steamed potato, tomato, cucumber, beetroot, onion, and spicy chutney in white bread, toasted together over hot coals and slathered in tomato sauce. (No idea what the crunchy bits on top were.) If you want it vegan-friendly, make sure the vendor holds the butter.
4. Sev/bhel/pani puri
Mumbai was probably my favourite place in India to try chaat (street snacks), and the best place to do so was on any of its beaches. I spent most of my afternoons wandering up and down the sand and tucking into any of the weird chaats on offer: masala popcorn, pani puri (crunchy shells filled with potato, some kind of spicy water — check the stall makes theirs with filtered water — and tangy tamarind sauce — hold the yoghurt for vegan), and sev/bhel puri (pictured below: puffed rice and corn flakes and chickpea flour chips, mixed with potato, cucumber, tomato, coriander, tamarind chutney and chilli, piled on top of individual crispy disc…things, with a glacé cherry on top), to name a few.
These snacks will rarely cost more than 20-25 rupees.
5. Roasted corn cobs with lemon salt
Thanks to Bali and India, beaches are now perpetually associated with sweetcorn in my head. Specifically, sweetcorn that’s been cooked over hot coals, sprinkled with salt and lemon and chilli (okay, doused — ask for less if you don’t want your face to fold into your mouth), and eaten with the sun going down in the background and relentless calls in your ear to buy shit you don’t want.
Competition is fierce between wandering vendors, so ask around to get the best price.
6. Pav bhaji
Another beach snack that’s so good it merits its own number. Pav bhaji is usually only available in the afternoon or at night, because it’s essentially a slop made from the remaining ingredients of the day: tomato gravy, mashed potato, and assorted vegetables, served with raw onions and a bread roll for dunking and mopping up sauce. It sounds disgusting, but it’s anything but.
(Pav bhaji is commonly laced with butter, so ask the vendor to hold it and hope for the best.)
For maximum enjoyment, order and then go and sit with locals on mats folded over the sand. It’s crowded, but Mumbaikers are always happy to make room. Pav bhaji costs about the same as the other street snacks: somewhere in the 20-60 rupee realm.
7. Flavoured sodas
Flavoured soda stations started cropping up in Rajasthan and towards the north. For just 10-15 rupees (around 25 cents), you can get a cup filled with ice-cold soft drink — sweet, sweet mercy beneath the baking sun. Flavours are unusual: mint, blueberry, strawberry, masala, chocolate, fruit punch, and more that I can’t remember (or weren’t available).
(This isn’t exactly the most environmentally-friendly choice; perhaps vendors would fill a reusable cup, if asked.)
8. Crunch carts
Not the known term, but as that’s essentially what they are then that is what I’m going to call them. These carts were all over the place in every state, packed with bags overflowing with all manner of crunchy, fried, sweet and salty, spicy snacks. My favourites were roasted chanas (chickpeas) and peanuts, popcorn, masala muttar (spicy peas), and chickpea flour chips.
These snacks are great to have on long bus/train rides. Prices differ from cart to cart (and how much you load up), but shouldn’t cost much more than 10 rupees per 100g.
9. Chilli fries
While on a street food tour of Jaipur, I was surprised to learn that Indian-Chinese fusion is very popular amongst locals. As a result, you’ll find loads of stalls selling plates of chow mein, fried noodle wraps, and these chips (fries) positively drowning in sweet chilli sauce. They’re guilty, glutinous, sticky, and delicious.
(Would also thoroughly recommend a food tour of Jaipur — the one I did through Moustache Hostel covered a heck of a lot, and the guide ensured there were plenty of vegan-friendly adaptations.)
10. Fried idli/kachori/lentil pattie thingies I don’t know the name of
Finally, I found them. The deep-fried, crunchy lentil snacks I used to eat out of a newspaper cone on trains in Sri Lanka, and have never been able to find since.
Thank you, Varanasi.
I have no idea what they’re called, but they’re just so tasty. I found them at a random stall on the long walk between Stops Hostel and Assi Ghat. Alas, I was only to eat them once; the friendly vendor could only offer fried idli on every other day that I visited. These…things, plus a fried idli smothered in creamy garlic chutney (apparently dairy-free) cost only 14 rupees (a little more than 20 cents).
11. Kulle chaat/all the deep-fried potatoes
I would never have heard of this particular snack without Migrationology. Near the Chawri Chowk Metro station in Delhi is an unassuming stall called Hira Lal Chaat Walla, where there is a UFO-sized, sizzling hot plate crunchifying a constant supply chain of potatoes. Those alone are worth the effort of chasing down this stall…but the real intrigue is kulle chaat.
The vendor hollows out various fruits and vegetables — potato, pineapple, mango, melon, papaya, tomato, and cucumber, in this case — fills them with chickpeas and pomegranate seeds, and sprinkles them with masala spice and smelly black salt. The sweet, acidic tang of fruit, combined with the umami flavour of chickpeas, spice, and scent of sulphur is jarring, for sure, but oddly satisfying.
Go and find it purely for the weird factor. You can pay for four or eight pieces. Prices are set.
12. La phing
This snack was discovered purely by accident while wandering around Delhi’s Little Tibet in search of bubble tea. A northern specialty (found more commonly in and around McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh), it comprises of flat, lemon-yellow noodles, rolled up with chilli paste, soy sauce, garlic, and some kind of mock meat (looks like the real thing, but I was assured it wasn’t).
La phing can be eaten dry or wet (soaked in a cold, salty broth) — I preferred dry, because I couldn’t attest to the cleanliness of the water. Either way, this snack is pleasantly chewy, salty, and garlicky, and the chilli will have your nose running like a tap before long. It’s also inexpensive — 30 rupees (fifty cents) for a bowl…all the more reason to try both varieties in one sitting! I sure as hell did.
13. Aloo tikki burger
There are three reasons to travel to Amritsar, Punjab.
To eat in the langar of the Golden Temple.
To watch the border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan — a fabulous display of pomp.
And to grab one of these crispy potato burgers, with salad and a generous coating of sweet and sour sauce, on the way out. So delicious, and the cost is just 20 rupees.
By the time I reached the north of India, I was feeling pretty deep-fried out. So it was a relief to discover a bunch of clean, oil-free, steamed veggie-friendly snacks — namely momos. Vendors sell these fresh out of steamer baskets — such a nourishing treat on a cold, rainy day (of which there were many in McLeod Ganj) — and there are mixed veg or potato varieties to choose from, if you’re avoiding meat. Some restaurants will supply chocolate-filled momos, if you ask nicely and give them some prep time; try JJI Exile Bros., where this special (wholewheat!) momo soup came from.
Momos on the street are really cheap — about 30 rupees per plate.
Sweet, diabetes-inducing, tooth-disintegrating jalebis.
I ate these more often than I care to admit. I’m obsessed. They’re such a fun and guilty pleasure: squiggly, hot, crunchy, syrupy…utterly delectable. Locals in places like Varanasi eat them for breakfast, alongside fiery kachori.
Vegans need to be wary, though, as they’re sometimes fried in ghee, as opposed to oil. The pricier ones might also contain honey — check with the vendor before you buy.
From memory, jalebis are about 5-10 rupees each, and found just about everywhere.