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Saturday, December 5, 2020

World Vegan Month: Being plant-based in India

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For World Vegan Month, The Vegan Review is sharing the stories of vegans from 30 countries around the world. Here’s one from India.

Nona Uppal, 22, is a research assistant at a civil-society organisation in India.

She went fully vegan over six months ago, having slowly begun transitioning three-and-a-half years ago. “After quitting meat, cutting out dairy products from my diet happened incrementally. I adopted a slow, intentional transformation over going cold-turkey as I did not want to leave everything all at once, and then find myself falling for intense cravings,” she says.

There is no word for ‘vegan’ in Uppal’s native language, Hindi. “The predominant classification for eating lifestyles has always been a vegetarian versus a non-vegetarian lifestyle,” she says. “The concept of veganism is significantly new in India and it’s only now gaining popularity.”

Why did you go vegan?

The very short answer to the ‘why’ is that I love animals and could not bear the cognitive dissonance in my brain that didn’t know how to reconcile this love with what was on my plate. The long answer is, well, long.

I was never the kind to enjoy eating meat products. I remember, as a kid, violently asking my parents to not buy me the meat burger at McDonald’s. I always pleaded for the vegetarian option. I didn’t have the rationality to know the ‘why’ of it all back then, but I just knew that I would be happier eating the vegetarian kind.

Eventually, I gave in, because meat products are made to taste good and it’s so readily available when you’re dining out. After years of guiltily consuming meat and dairy products, I found myself at a McDonald’s, yet again, when I was 18 years old. I was suddenly struck by the realisation that I am no longer a child who is told what to eat and what to like. After 10 years of picking the non-vegetarian options off the menu, I decided to finally go for the vegetarian one, which the child in me always wanted.

This was on April 18, 2017 and I remember the date because it was a point where my life came full circle. More than my 18th birthday, that date marks my transition towards adulthood, which came with the realisation that my decisions are my own to make.

I know this story sounds dramatic, but food is such a deeply personal, spiritual experience for so many of us. Eliminating a huge portion of what you’ve been eating for your entire life feels oddly transformative and life-changing. Regardless, ever since, I have never looked back. Unless you count the two times I was accidentally served meat and I sobbed incessantly.

What was the biggest challenge when you transitioned?

Social dining becomes very difficult. It is tough to reject a piece of cake on someone’s birthday when all they want to do is feed you a bite. Deciding on a restaurant, which is already a painfully difficult task, is further problematised because I have a bunch of things I cannot eat and need options available for my preferences.

Plus, there are some moments when you are perceived as difficult or uptight by people. I’ve had several people asking me to “chill out” and not take this “so seriously”. I get it, it’s coming from a place where they want me to not be consumed and still be able to have fun with my life. But I often tell these people: I have never been happier and more at peace with the way I eat. I am, if I may say so myself, very “chilled out” about being vegan. It doesn’t stress me at all and I enjoy hunting for vegan options in the most unexpected restaurants. So, I can definitely handle the challenges well.

The only things I cannot handle are the trolls: the kind of people minimising what you’re doing and telling you why you’re wrong and that humans are supposed to eat animals because “food chain”. For the longest time, I felt compelled to persuade them with facts, but it gets very tiring trying to explain your position to people who only wish to criticise, and not listen.

What was the reaction of your loved ones when you went plant-based? How did they adapt?

They were surprisingly very open and understanding about it. My family is a big believer in freedom of thought. We’re a diverse set of people and we take pride in accepting these varied opinions and worldviews.

My mother was the only one a little concerned for me, worrying whether I can get a nutritionally well-rounded diet. But now, she’s the biggest supporter. In a lot of ways, my family has adjusted their eating patterns to accommodate mine. In many Indian households, traditional Indian dishes are often cooked with ghee. So was the case in my house, but now we exclusively cook only with oil so I can eat the same vegetarian dishes my family eats.

There is also a tacit agreement amongst us all that if there is an occasion and desserts have to be made, they’ll be made by me. And as a result, the desserts would also be vegan. Often, my parents bring up my belief in veganism in conversations with their friends, and it makes me happy to know they’re actually proud enough to discuss it with people. That is the only thing I could ask for in this journey — even if they have different life choices from my own, they have a lot of respect for where I’m coming from and never try to minimise my feelings and opinions.

Who are your influences?

In many ways, my ten-year-old self is my biggest influence in this journey. If you would’ve asked me back then what I wanted to do if I had unlimited resources, I would tell you that I want to open a farm for stray animals to live and thrive in. I was constantly pained when I saw animals living on the street, searching for scraps in the dustbin. I used to run around and after dogs and cats in my apartment complex, hoping they come to me and eat the food I’m offering them. On winter afternoons, I used to quietly watch older people in my locality feeding abandoned cows some pieces of bread.

I recall all of these moments from my childhood, as a kid who was just fascinated with the connection that we have with animals. It was only by tapping into that younger, innocent version of myself that I decided to be the way I am today. So, while several people influence me with the delicious meals they cook and the wonderful advice they offer on being vegan, I was my biggest influence.

One of my biggest influences for plant-based recipes, however, is Sadia Badiei. She runs a blog and a YouTube channel called Pick Up Limes and I am constantly trying out her recipes.

What’s your favourite thing to cook now? Have you tried to veganise a local traditional dish?

This is tough to answer. I have made so many vegan desserts that all of them are my prized creations and I cannot pick the one I love the most. My favourite savoury thing to cook would, without a doubt, have to be my creamy mushroom pasta dish, which I make more than ten times a month. It has this uncanny ability of tasting like cheese without having any cheese in it, and that’s what I love the most about it. My favourite sweet dish that I’ve ever made is classic chocolate brownies. All of my close friends are floored by them and I regularly get asked if they’re truly vegan.

Many dishes in the Indian cuisine are very easy to make vegan because India is big on vegetables. So as far as savoury dishes go, veganising them is never a big challenge. The problem arises when you try and recreate Indian sweet dishes, which are pretty much just sugar, butter and flour. Just writing about this pains me, because Indian sweet dishes were my biggest weaknesses and parting with them really did hurt.

One of my absolute favourite local sweets was besan ladoo, which is made from chickpea flour, ghee, and sugar. With a lot of reluctance, I tried to ‘veganise it’ and made it with oil instead. I think I gave my entire family a sugar rush because none of them could digest the fact that 1. the laddoos were vegan, and 2. that I could make things taste better than available in the shops. At the risk of sounding too confident, they genuinely were the best besan laddoos I’d ever had in my entire life.

Read our story on how South India is a paradise for vegan food.

What vegan product do you wish your country had available?

More vegan yoghurts and plant-based meats, for sure. I was obsessed with yoghurt (we have dahi in India). Before transitioning towards veganism, I used to eat multiple packs of it in a day, as religiously as water. It’s also good for your daily probiotic requirement. Ever since I’ve gone vegan, it’s the one thing I feel missing.

Read our writer Muskaan Gupta’s attempt at making DIY vegan yoghurt at home — with chillies.

I am also a die-hard for Indian street food and some of my favourite dishes have dahi in them, which means I can no longer have these. Now, I don’t expect the Indian street food market to suddenly have vegan yoghurt available, but I think a good yoghurt supplement in grocery stores would be delightful. There are definitely some on the market, but they’re either too costly or very regional.

The other thing is plant-based meats. A bunch of vegans, such as myself, do not inherently dislike the taste of meat — only the process that leads to getting it. So I would totally be down for vegan chicken burgers or sausages. I also think that having these options is a good way of opening veganism to a larger audience. And by doing so, you also increase demand, allowing for the prices of these products to reduce significantly.

Check out eight Indian street food dishes that are traditionally vegan.

How accessible and affordable are vegan products in your country?

Anything different from the norm is less likely to be very accessible or easily available. So is the case with vegan products in India. Over the past few years, the options have mushroomed, with several affordable options coming up for people to try. But if someone is looking to embrace a vegan lifestyle hinged on the support from vegan ‘alternatives’, then veganism in India is an expensive affair.

I personally only seek alternatives for milk, mayonnaise (guilty pleasure) and sometimes the occasional cheese. Plus, most vegan products in India are only available online, as opposed to grocery stores. That, in itself, eliminates a huge group of people from participating in appreciating these items.

Read our story on India’s world-leading dairy industry.

What’s your favourite spot for vegan food in your city?

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to experience a lot of vegan spots. One that I have been to, before I was ever vegan, is Getafix in New Delhi, which was a health food spot — they had conventional food options made healthier, gluten-free, and vegan.

I think the problem with vegan restaurants pretty much anywhere in India is that they focus too much on the ‘health’ bit of it all. There is an assumption that as a vegan, all I want is fat-free, sugar-free vegan milkshakes with spinach. Sure, that sounds, not bad… But if I am dining out, I want a big serving of fries with an unforgivingly decadent chocolate cake.

One place that I’m itching to visit is called the Greenr Cafe. Its menu sounds irresistible and I cannot wait for the pandemic to be over for me to have a good meal over there.

What is the one city you’d like to visit as a vegan?

Los Angeles. The US is kind of the pinnacle of choice in every aspect, and now more than ever, of veganism. I follow a lot of vegan bloggers from the US and the wealth of options they have to choose from is borderline offensive. A million brands now make vegan butters, yoghurt, cheeses, cheeseburgers, plant-based chicken, sausages… you name it, they have it.

I would love to try out plant-based meat options, having been a meat-eater pretty much my entire life, and critically examine if it actually mimics the taste and texture of meat. I would emphasise the ‘visit’ part of it all though. I could never live in any place that has these many options for my daily needs. I would die from decision fatigue, having to choose from 15 different types of plant-based milks spread across two aisles.

What’s the biggest roadblock to veganism in your country?

If you’re someone who cannot think of going vegan without having vegan alternatives, then it’s difficult to go vegan in India. It is costly and inaccessible for several people, making veganism sound elitist and only for the ‘rich’.

I think, if anything, veganism is extremely easy to come about in India. Indians have such a huge array of fresh vegetables, grains, fruits, dry fruits — the options are limitless. The average Indian also has their pantry stacked full of all-vegan things at any point.

During the early days of the pandemic, people rushed to the grocery stores all around me, to stock up their pantries. What did they return with? Rice, beans, flour. I barely heard my parents trying to fetch meat in those troubled times. I know that might sound simplistic, but all our basic diets are composed of wonderfully nutritious and filling vegan foods.

If at all there is a roadblock to veganism, it is dairy. Milk is gold in India and not feeding your child milk is setting them up for ill-health. More awareness is critical: we need for people to understand that milk is packed with certain nutrients, yes, but it is not the only thing that carries those same nutrients. My father never consumed milk his entire life, and he’s the fittest person I know. So if there is a roadblock to being vegan in India, it definitely is overcoming the dairy myth.

For more on that, read our story on what is hindering veganism in India.

Anay
Anay Mridul
Anay is a journalism graduate from City, University of London. He has been a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan this year, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.