Whenever someone hears my partner and I cook mostly Punjabi food, the reaction is always the same.
“You eat all that GHEE? But that’s SOO many calories! I could never eat Indian food – I’d be as big as a house!” an omnivore will exclaim, looking askance at my size 6 body and my partner’s slim 160 lb frame.
The response from a vegan is even worse. “How DARE you eat Indian food! Every dish is full of GHEE and cream!”
To be fair, Charlotte did come late to the Indian food scene. A dozen or so years ago, when I went veg, there was only a single Indian restaurant and no Indian markets. Maybe that’s why when you mention Indian food, the only thing most Charlotteans seem to know about is ghee.
And they are absolutely fixated on it.
Which is a shame, because there is such a huge – and I do mean HUGE – variety of vegetarian dishes in Indian cuisine, built around non-processed, super healthy foods like beans, lentils, leafy greens, vegetables, and grains. And almost all these vegetarian dishes can easily be made vegan – just cook in oil instead of ghee, and use margarine on breads instead of butter. Not-too-firm tofu can stand in for paneer. About the only things that can’t be replicated are the yogurt raitas and namkeem lassis (sigh).
In three years of cooking Indian cuisine, I have never once cooked with ghee – only vegetable oils. My Punjabi partner claims ghee is used for special occasions, as it is too expensive to be used for everyday meals!
Recently I posted a series of Meetups with an Indian theme – first, dinner at a South Indian restaurant, next, dinner at a North Indian restaurant, followed a few weeks later by a group Indian cooking class. I received a flurry of outraged emails …. “But those restaurants use GHEE!!! There is butter and cream in EVERY dish! How DARE you post such events?!!”
I dare post such events because:
#1 I am the Organizer;
#2 VegCharlotte is an inclusive group for both vegetarians and vegans … and for those just beginning to take their first tentative steps away from meat! “Just put DOWN the chicken wing and move slooowly towards the daal …”;
#3 There is NOT butter and cream in every dish; and
#4 I truly believe Indian food is awesome!
So how to handle an Indian restaurant?
First, avoid buffets and order off the menu – I’ve been told some restaurants actually DO use lots of ghee and cream in buffet dishes because “that’s what Americans expect.” Also, “if the buffet dishes are really rich, people will eat less.” Hmmm.
Second, ask your waiter for help. Believe me, they are used to dietary restrictions from their customers! Most Sikhs are vegetarians, many Hindus are vegetarians (and at any rate don’t eat beef), Muslims are supposed to eat only “halaal” meats (but at any rate don’t eat pork). If you still feel uncomfortable, tell them you have an allergy to dairy! You never know … some Indian restaurants don’t use “real” ghee at all but rather vegetable ghee – again because of lower cost!
Larger cities often have all-vegetarian Indian restaurants and these often have a vegan selection. I even ate at an entirely all-vegan Indian restaurant in Atlanta!
I find the fixation on ghee ironic, too, in that most American restaurants are …. ENTHUSIASTIC …. in their use of butter! That veggie burger you ordered? Take a look at the inside of the bun – that pretty yellow color likely means the bun was brushed with butter. Your side of fresh veggies? Butter. Stewed apples? Butter. Even foods you don’t EXPECT to contain butter – such as marinara sauce or minestrone soup at the Olive Garden – have butter added. “It’s an easy way to make things taste good,” one chef told me. “It can disguise the quality of ingredients. Americans looooove butter. How else do you explain Paula Deen?”
Sooo. I hope this has helped put ghee into perspective. If you haven’t tried Indian food because of ghee phobia, I hope this encourages you to expand your horizons a bit. And if not … well, more vegan Indian food for the rest of us. Yum.