Indian Dishes for Vegetarians

Ruben Castaneda

Vegetarian Indian dishes are healthy and tasty.

Consuming a plant-based diet provides an array of health benefits and the opportunity to try new cuisine -- like Indian food, says Dr. Kristi Artz, medical director for Spectrum Health's Lifestyle Medicine program. She's based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Adhering to a plant-based eating regimen can help ward off heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions, Artz says. There are plenty of tasty Indian dishes to incorporate into such an eating approach.

"Indian food gives you a wonderful opportunity to try new vegetables and spices you might not have tried before," Artz says. "You're working with such rich, aromatic spices and sauces that really bring out unique flavors that pair so well with delicious vegetables and legumes."

Here are 10 vegetarian Indian dishes:

Baingan bharta (roasted eggplant mush)

For a vegetarian Indian dish that's nutrient-dense, try this spicy eggplant option, says Timothy Buma, director of culinary innovations at Restaurant Associates, based in New York City. Restaurant Associates operates a portfolio of corporate accounts, law firms, educational facilities and landmark cultural centers. Overall, it serves more than 160 clients.

Baingan bharta is a spicy eggplant dish that combines spicy green chilies, tomatoes and aromatic masala spices. You can serve it over rice for a delicious vegetarian main dish, Buma says.

It's also easy to prepare: Rub vegetable oil over the cut side of a halved eggplant and roast the cut side until the skin is lightly burned. The eggplant should be soft and tender. Peel and mash the pulp. In a large pot, heat oil and sauté finely chopped onion, green chilies, garlic, salt, cilantro and turmeric. Stir-fry until the combination is golden, then add chopped tomato and the eggplant mix and combine. Cook the combined ingredients until fragrant.

Cauliflower tikka masala

Artz says this is one of her favorite vegan Indian dishes.

The cauliflower takes the place of any meat that might have been used and gives the dish a nice texture," she says. "We use non-dairy yogurt in the sauce to keep that creamy texture you would assume with any tikka masala. Add a variety of fresh herbs and spices like ginger, cloves, garam masala, turmeric and cumin, and you've got a lovely warm flavor."

Another plus is that the dish is easy to prepare, she says. Carmelize the onions, add garlic, ginger and spices, and cook for a minute. Then, add tomatoes, maple syrup and cauliflower, and cover and simmer the combination for 20 minutes. Finally, stir in non-dairy yogurt and garnish with fresh cilantro.

Chenna pollichattu (paneer in banana leaf)

This is a classic dish from Kerela, a state on the southwestern coast of India, says Jasmine Sheth, a chef based in Chicago.

The dish typically features steamed fish covered in spices and wrapped in a banana leaf, says Sheth, who is of Indian descent. She turns it into a vegetarian dish by substituting homemade paneer -- a fresh cheese common in India -- for the fish.

"The flavor of the spices penetrates into the paneer," she says. "The steam makes the paneer melt in your mouth, and the aroma of the banana leaf is divine."

Chettinad aloo (potatoes cooked in a coconut curry)

This dish is popular in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Sheth says.

It features a heaping amount of fresh coconut, along with star anise (the fruit of a small evergreen tree that's used as a spice), fennel, cardamom, cinnamon and dried red chilies. The concoction is toned down with the creaminess of fresh ground coconut, she says.

This dish is traditionally made with chicken; to make it vegetarian, Sheth uses baby potatoes instead. She suggests adding fresh green veggies, like green beans, broccoli, bell peppers and carrots for crunchiness and color. "You'll have a super mixed vegetables dish in a Chettinad gravy."

Chana masala

Chickpeas are the star of this popular Indian dish, which offers a nice texture and added variety for vegetarians and anyone else who wants to try it, Artz says.

You can include a variety of ingredients that will make this a hearty dish. For example, diced tomatoes, sweet potatoes and aromatic spices like minced garlic, fresh ginger, turmeric and garman masala, which is a blend of Indian spices.

The dish is high in fiber and protein. "It's a great option both as a side dish or a main dish," Artz says. You can add greens to this dish, cooked or raw.

Cardamon-infused fruit salad

This dish is a vibrant and colorful fruit salad infused with aromatic Indian spices that makes a refreshing ending or accompaniment to any meal, says Vandana Sheth, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist. (Vandana Sheth is no relation to Jasmine Sheth.) Vandana Sheth's the author of "My Indian Table -- Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes," which was published in 2019. She's also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

This salad could include apples, bananas, grapes and oranges, she says. Add the cardamom; you can incorporate either cardamom pods that hold the spice's seeds or just the seeds. You can also find cardamom spices at most supermarkets and at Indian food stores. Another option is to add ground ginger or chai masala to your salad. Make this dish more colorful by adding pomegranate arils (the bright, shiny seeds inside pomegranates), berries and mango. "You can vary the fruit according to what is in season and your preferences," Sheth says.

Kachumber (tomato, onion and cucumber salad)

This is a quick and easy chopped salad that's a common accompaniment to Indian meals, Vandana Sheth says. There are no set rules about what ingredients go into a kachumber salad, but they typically include cucumber, tomato, onion, cilantro, lime, lemon and spices.

"Enjoy it as a topping to toast, serve it as part of an appetizer platter with crackers and chips or as a side salad," she says.

Khamman dhokla (steamed chickpea cakes)

Ask any Gujarati (people from the Western Indian state of Gujarat) what their mothers packed for a picnic, and dhokla will be at the top of the list, Jasmine Sheth says.

These savory and steamed chickpea cakes are a go-to in any Indian household, says Sheth, whose family is Gujarati. Made with a batter of chickpea flour, sour yogurt and baking soda, these savory cakes are steamed and then served with a topping of tempered mustard seeds, sesame seeds, curry leaves, dried red chilies and plenty of fresh grated coconut.

"You can enjoy them just as is or by dipping into a spicy coriander chutney or sweet tamarind chutney," Sheth says.

Khichdi (lightly spiced rice with lentils)

This is a traditional rice and lentil dish that is comforting and delicious, Vandana Sheth says.

In the Indian culture, Khichdi is often one of the first foods served to a baby. Since it's soft and easy to digest, it's also a good choice when you're feeling sick. "Think of khichdi as a warm hug in a bowl with spices such as cumin, black peppercorns and turmeric," she says.

Navratan korma (vegetable curry)

This is a tasty and nutritious vegetable dish that features a fragrant sauce made of curry spices, green chili, ginger, garlic, cashews and onions. "This vegetarian dish is full of flavor and nutrients and is finished with cream," Buma says.

If you want to keep it vegan, use coconut cream instead of regular cream, he says.

To recap, here are 10 vegetarian Indian dishes:

-- Baingan bharta (roasted eggplant mush).

-- Cauliflower tikka masala.

-- Chenna pollichattu (paneer in banana leaf).

-- Chettinad aloo (potatoes cooked in a coconut curry).

-- Chana masala.

-- Cardamon infused fruit salad.

-- Kachumber (tomato, onion and cucumber salad).

-- Khamman dhokla (steamed chickpea cakes)

-- Khichdi (lightly spiced rice with lentils).

-- Navratan korma (vegetable curry).