Quick. What country has 70% of the world’s vegetarians? Probably an easy question. Vegetarianism has been a cornerstone of Hindu life in India and particularly South India for millennia. Clearly, the Indians have learned a thing or two over that time about how to make flavorful and healthful vegetarian meals. For the most part, Indians are lacto-vegetarians. Yogurt is an important component in the cuisine. It serves a number of valuable purposes. It is a source of protein, promotes stomach health, and is a welcome antidote to the spicy food that Indians love.
The traditional thali meal will always have a yogurt dish. The South Indian thali is served on a stainless steel plate, and has bowls with various dishes surrounding a bed of rice on a banana leaf. Besides yogurt, there will always be rasam (lentil soup with pepper, coriander and cumin seeds) and sambar (a heavily spiced stew of lentils and vegetables). Additionally, there will be bowls with vegetables, potatoes, and a sweet. You’ll notice that the lentil is the ever-present element in South Indian cuisine. Find a good thali restaurant, and you will be able to eat for next to nothing.
The thali is not the only staple of South Indian vegetarian cuisine. The masala dosai is probably the most well-known dish. A dosai is a sort of large pancake or crepe made from fermented rice and urad dal (black lentil). Wrap a dosai around a mixture of potatoes, fried onions and spices and you have a masala dosai.
Idli is also made from fermented urad dal. It is a sort of steamed dumpling. It is commonly served with sambar or chutney for breakfast or snacks.
Of course there are many more dishes. (See Wikipedia on Tamil Cuisine) I’m getting a little off course here. But talking about food you love is dangerous that way. The point is that if you are a vegetarian, India can be heaven. An entire culture has evolved around it. Unless you’re spice-averse, you will eat like never before, and even if you are, maybe you’ll overcome your aversion when confronted with such great food.
I'm not a vegetarian, but I never miss meat when I'm in India. Of course you can easily find restaurants that serve meat (not beef though). Chennai has a wide range of international restaurants: Thai, Italian, French, Chinese, and more.
Note: This is crazy! I didn't know that India is one of the world's leading beef exporters. Check this article on CNN.
You can volunteer, intern, or study in India. It is an unrivaled experience.
By Kevin O'Neill