Being vegan doesn't mean giving up on gourmet delicacies. It means being creative in the kitchen

What is it about veganism that raises people’s hackles? While this ethical lifestyle choice will inevitably always harbour a clutch of people who revel in denial, the truth is it’s never really been about ‘deprivation’. Although being vegan means abstaining from the use of all animal products — from Gouda to ghee — more and more vegans are discovering it doesn’t mean giving up all gourmet indulgences. It just means re-learning the way you approach food.

This is not about the ethics of being vegan. That’s a whole new story. It’s about the fact that a vegan diet doesn’t spell a lifetime of joyless tofu dinners anymore. As this style of eating gets more popular, great vegan meals become easier to find. Vegan restaurants, potlucks, tiffin services. Blogs, online communities, resource websites. And a growing data base of recipes from all over the world. This is one lifestyle choice that forces you to learn how to cook!

Manasa Rajan, co-founder and vegan nutrition coach at ‘Cure Yourself With Food’, insists that turning vegan is not difficult. “However, one needs to be a creative in the kitchen, as it is a big shift from the traditional way of cooking and eating,” she adds. On the plus side, she says it opens up “a whole new world of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts... I was used to eating maybe five kinds of fruits and now I get at least 13 varieties of fruit every week and cook with so many different vegetables. I also eat a larger variety of grains like ragi, bajra, jowar, quinoa and barley.

Sites like Vegan India, which provide a database of various establishments that offer vegan options in food, restaurants, holidays, accessories etc., make the move easier. Its founder Amrita says when they began in 2009, they got around 300 hits a month, and now its more than 19,000. Amrita turned vegetarian at 16, and then became vegan 15 years later, says the trick is to transition intelligently. “Plant-based meat to me is part of rehab therapy...” she says, adding that ultimately the goal is to find a new way of eating instead of depending on heavily processed substitutes.”

This is how Anuradha Sawhney, who headed the PETA India office for nine years, became such an accomplished vegan cook that she now runs a wellness centre called ‘Back To The Basics’ where she teaches people the power of nutrition, while introducing them to the joys of peanut milk and vegan cheesecake. She recently launched The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style bringing together vegan recipes from about 50 celebrities. “When I first turned vegan, I didn’t care what I ate — as long as it was vegan: pakodas, samosas, sugar... My diet was full of fat and processed food. Then I had a bit of a health scare after being vegan for ten years: blood tests showed I had high cholesterol, blood pressure etc.” That’s when she began experimenting with food.

“I made shepherd’s pie last night with soya mince. Instead of just potatoes, which are all starch, I used pumpkin. And it was awesome. Tonight it’s pizza, with a bajra base and cashew-based feta topping.” Her yoghurt is made from soy milk and set with lactobacillus crystals. She also makes peanut milk yogurt, “its set with chilli stalk. It comes out so well, I teach it at all my workshops.”

Sawhney says it’s all about thinking out of the box. “It’s a learning process. I’ve been vegan for 13 years now, and in the beginning it was difficult because the only thing I used to eat was paneer. Now I have dahi kaddi and chaas with peanut milk. My tofu burji and oats upma are very popular too.” She adds, “I cook Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese. For example, I’m making aubergine Vietnamese noodles for lunch. I also do a little raw food. Like a pad Thai with carrot and cucumber, tossed with sesame paste, tamarind, lemon and peanuts.”

Her book proves that vegan food can be joyful too. “Madhavan’s given me a grilled mushroom with rosemary and thyme recipe.” There’s Yana Gupta’s ‘brown rice with coriander and spinach’. And Om Puri’s non-diary palak raita. In the mood for something more decadent? Try Puja Bhatt’s corn on the cob with tequila butter.

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