Pakistani Vegan Cuisine

by Navaal Mahdi

Traditional Pakistani food consists of some of the most colorful dishes you will see. Not only is this due to the fact that a medley of vegetables is used to add a multitude of flavors to each dish, but it is also because various spices and garnishes, ranging from bright red in color to bright green, are used to enhance the flavors and appearances of most dishes. Because of this, it is easy to recreate Pakistani recipes for vegans; all you must remember is to substitute butter with oil or vegan margarine, and meat with tofu or a vegetable. Dishes range in cooking and preparation times from 10 minutes to 45 minutes, so anyone who has the available ingredients can attempt recreating these flavorful meals.

Mung Lentils and Rice

(Serves 4)

  • 1 ½ cups white rice
  • ½ cup split mung lentils
  • 6 cups water, divided
  • Salt to taste
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 4 cloves
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil

After washing and draining the rice and split mung lentils thoroughly, combine the two in a bowl filled with 3 cups of water and let them sit for 30 minutes.

After this time has passed, dump out the majority of the water and transfer the rice and lentils from the bowl into a pot. Pour the remaining 3 cups of water into the pot, and add the salt, black peppercorns, and cloves. Bring to a boil and then uncovered simmer until the majority of the water evaporates (about 10-12 minutes). Add olive oil, and steam the rice over a low heat for 3-5 minutes until remaining water has evaporated. Check the rice and lentils to make sure they are soft, but not overcooked and falling apart.

Total calories per serving: 413 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 74 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 5 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Eggplant and Potato Curry

(Serves 6)

  • 2 Tablespoons oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • ½ teaspoon minced garlic
  • ½ teaspoon minced ginger
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin powder
  • 4 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped into eighths
  • 1 large eggplant, peeled and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chopped coriander leaves (optional)
  • 2 green chili peppers, cut into fourths (optional)

In a large pan, add oil and the chopped onions and sauté until the onions turn a light brown color. Add the tomatoes and cook them until they become soft. Add the garlic and ginger, and mix into the other ingredients well. Add the water next, and then sprinkle the chili powder, salt, turmeric powder, and cumin powder over the ingredients in the pan. Place a lid on the pan to cover, and let it cook for 10 minutes over a low heat while periodically checking to make sure nothing burns.

When the water from the pan mostly evaporates, mix the ingredients together and add the potatoes and eggplant. Let them cook in the steam under a lid until both are soft. Mix gently, careful not to break the potatoes. Add the optional garnishes of chopped coriander leaves and green chili peppers if you would like to, and turn the stove off. Let the garnishes steam with the curry for about 5 minutes.

This dish is best served over rice or with pita bread.

Total calories per serving: 223 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 33 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 206 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Pakistani Chickpea Salad

(Serves 6)

  • Two 14-ounce cans of chickpeas, rinsed
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 Tablespoon Chaat Masala Seasoning by Shan (optional all-purpose seasoning mix)
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 potatoes
  • 2 tomatoes
  • ½ onion
  • 2 green chili peppers, cut into halves or fourths

Drain and rinse the chickpeas and place them in a large bowl. Add the salt, chili powder, cumin powder, Chaat Masala Seasoning (if desired), and lemon juice, and mix carefully. Next, rinse and boil potatoes in a pot for a few minutes until they are soft enough to easily cut through, but not of a mushy consistency. Dice the potatoes, tomatoes, and onion and add them and the green chili peppers to the bowl. Mix the ingredients carefully, and the salad is ready to serve.

Note: Chaat Masala Seasoning by Shan can be purchased online or at Indian or Pakistani grocery stores.

Total calories per serving: 179 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 34 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 363 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Potato Curry

(Serves 5)

  • 2 Tablespoons oil
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 6 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 5 Tablespoons water

Heat the oil in a flat pan over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds, and let them sizzle until the seeds start to turn brown. Add the diced potatoes and mix them in with the oil. Add salt and chili powder, and then add the water. Cover the pan with a lid so the steam from the water will help soften the potatoes, and cook over a low heat. Check the pan after 5 minutes, and mix thoroughly. Following this, put the cover back on the pan and let the steam further cook the potatoes for another 5-10 minutes, depending on how soft you want the potatoes to be.

This curry can be served on its own, with a side of plain crackers, or with whole-grain vegan bread.

Total calories per serving: 293 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 45 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 251 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Fried Okra and Onions

(Serves 5)

  • 1 pound okra
  • 4 Tablespoons oil, divided
  • 2 medium onions, cut in long slices
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 2 green chili peppers, diced (optional)

After washing and draining the okra, wait until they are mostly dry before chopping off the heads and discarding them. Then, cut the okra into halves.

In a large non-stick pan, add 1 Tablespoon of the oil and sauté the onion slices in the oil until they turn a light brown color. Add the chopped tomatoes to the pan and cook them until they are soft. Next, add the salt, chili powder, and turmeric.

In a different pan, add the remaining 3 Tablespoons of oil and fry the okra until they look to be half-cooked. Then, transfer the okra from this pan into the onion and tomato mixture. Cook the combined ingredients over low heat, and mix gently so the okra doesn't break. Lastly, add the green chili peppers, and after turning off the flame, put a lid on the pan to give the dish some time to steam.

The okra can be eaten on its own, or it can be served with pita bread.

Total calories per serving: 190 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 16 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 304 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Vegetarian and Vegan Living in Pakistan

As far as I'm aware, the concept of being vegan isn't very popular in the Pakistani community. It's not that everyone looks down on those who are vegetarian or vegan; rather, they just don't understand why anyone would actively choose not to consume meat because it is such an integral part of the food culture. I'm lucky to live in a household that doesn't exclusively make all meals with meat. When I decided to become vegan, my mother was supportive enough to stop using dairy products in most of the Pakistani dishes she made. In this way, I have been spoiled; I can eat pretty much all of the Pakistani food my mother makes and has taught me to make, and it doesn't put a strain on my family because we are a veggie-loving group.

During my time researching veganism in Pakistan, I haven't come across any public figure who advocates for animal rights or maintains an animal-product-free diet. I would honestly consider myself an outsider to the proper Pakistani culture since I don't have any memories of the country; I was born and raised in Canada and have only visited Pakistan once when I was six years old. I think Pakistanis who haven't lived in Pakistan may treat the culture differently than any Pakistani native does, especially because we have a secondary culture, which is the American culture, in my case now. For this reason, I don't have too many insights about the country and its native people, but I'm very curious to learn; I would like to have the opportunity to visit my family in Pakistan within the next few years.

I haven't come across any updated lists of exclusively vegetarian restaurants in Pakistan, but I do know that Pakistani chefs are generally good at changing up ingredients in an item on the menu if you know what you want to ask for instead. For this reason, I have come up with the following English-Urdu vegan essentials dictionary. I know this will definitely help me when I'm trying to order vegan dishes in Pakistan!

Vegan = روخ تابن
Nabat khor (plant-based)

Vegetarian = روخ یزبس
Sabzi khor (vegetable-based)

Strictly vegetables = ںایزبس ےس یتخس
Sakhti say sabziyan

Is there any milk, butter, or dairy in this? = ںیم سا ؟ےہ یہد ای ، نھکم ، ھدود
Iss main dood, makhan, ya dahi hai?

Can I see the ingredients list? = یک ءازجا ںیم ںوہ اتکس ھکید تسرہف
Main ajza ki fehris dekh sakhta hoon?

Navaal wrote this article while interning with The Vegetarian Resource Group. She is a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.