A Guide to Vegan South Indian Food.

The crackle of mustard seeds in the earthy aroma of sesame oil, the taste of coconut blended perfect with pan-fried vegetables, the tanginess and the burst of flavors from a single pot of gravy-like Sambar.. is just touching the tip of the South Indian cuisine iceberg.

I hail from Chennai, India and belong to a community of proud South Indians. I also belong to the Iyer Brahmin sect, who have a long-standing vegetarian ancestry. But I recently decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle in February, and that has placed some restrictions within my own traditional cuisine.

Sure, I’ve got to skip on dishes with curd, milk and ghee- but it doesn’t mean that I’m moping about it. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have found that South Indian food is very convenient and suitable for vegans. I have found ways to make small tweaks to ‘veganize’ any dish, and even got to recreate the iconic ‘curd/yogurt rice’!

South Indian food is rich in carbohydrates, which is perfect for plant-based and vegan lifestyles. The main foundation of South Indian cuisine are tamarind, coconut, rice, lentils and spices. We also love using sesame oil and coconut oil in our food, for that rustic flavor and healthy fats. It is a harmony of starchy carbs with protein and fat, in the form of lentils and coconut. Throw in unique spice blends and extracts, and you’ve got a balanced and healthy meal!


If you’re curious to try out vegan options in South Indian cuisine, here’s a list I’ve compiled-

  • White rice: Staple in almost every meal. Served with a gravy dish (see below) and vegetable dishes.
  • Idli: steamed rice and black gram cakes
  • Dosa: thin crepes with several varieties made of rice and black gram, semolina, wheat flour, etc. They are stuffed with potato filling in the popular ‘masala dosa’.
  • Uttapam: Thicker version of dosas, topped with onions, carrots and peas.
  • Adai: A hearty and protein-packed dosa version, made with split pigeon peas, rice, split green gram and shredded coconut.
  • Sambar: Semi-thick gravy with lentils, tamarind water and vegetables. Also cooked in a different ‘arachu vitta sambar’ version with coconut and a coriander seed blend.
  • Rasam (But check the tadka or seasoning, it may have ghee): A thin soup, but eaten mixed with white rice. It is made of lentil mashed finely in water, tamarind water, cumin, dry red chillies, and tomatoes.
  • Vatha kuzhambu: A thick, sour gravy packing in a punch of flavor. It is made with thickened tamarind water, pearl onions, dry red chillies and a touch of rice flour. Tastes great when mixed in small portions with rice.
  • Lemon rice: A blend of oil, mustard seeds, split bengal gram, turmeric powder, dry red chillies, curry leaves and a sprinkle of asafoetida. Rice is mixed in, lemon juice is squeezed generously for that tangy flavor and salt is added at the end.
  • Coconut rice: Similar prep as lemon rice, but with less oil, no turmeric powder, no lemon juice and lots of shredded coconut.
  • Tamarind rice: A personal favorite of mine because of the tangy flavor factor. ๐Ÿ™‚ Available in Indian supermarkets as ‘puliogare paste’, it is a blend of oil, thick tamarind extract and salt.
  • Rava upma: Semolina cooked in water with fried mustard seeds, split green gram, dry red chillies, curry leaves and vegetables.
  • Semiya (vermicelli) upma: Ditto rava upma, but made with noodle-like vermicelli instead.
  • Sundal: I love this dish too, which is eaten as a snack. It is made of cooked chickpeas/garbanzo beans, mustard seeds, dry red chillies and curry leaves with spices and salt in a little oil.
  • Vada: Fried savory donuts! They come in a donut hole variety (medu vada) and a lentil-packed version (paruppu vada).
  • Coconut chutneyย (But check the tadka or seasoning, it may have ghee): Eaten with dosas, idlis and vadas. It is made of a paste of coconuts, green chillies, cumin seeds and garnished with an oil seasoning.
  • Coriander chutney: Similar to coconut chutney, but with cilantro and a tiny bit of tamarind instead of coconut.
  • Onion-tomato chutney: Fresh onion and tomato cooked on stove top, mixed in with a seasoning of oil, mustard seeds, split green gram and dry red chillies.
  • Pickles: A fermented dish with vegetables, oils and spices.
  • Paruppu usili: My holy grail South Indian favorite. A crumbly pan-fried dish of cooked diced French beans and fluffy lentils.
  • Vegetable fry/poriyal (all varieties): Diced vegetables pan-fried in oil, mustard seeds, split green gram, salt and spices. A few vegetable dishes are also fried with shredded coconut, which makes it a ‘poriyal’.
  • Kootu (stews): Vegetables which are cooked as a stew. They contain vegetables, a paste of coconut and chillies and cooked lentils.
  • Appalam: A big, fried disc made of lentils.
  • Poori Masala: Deep-fried wheat flour bread, served with a potato gravy dish.
  • Paruppu podi: A powdery side dish mixed with rice. When mixing it with rice, substitute ghee with sesame oil.ย 
  • Milagai podi/gun powder: A fiery-looking powder, made with a blend of spices and lentils. Mixed with sesame oil, and eaten with idlis and dosas.
  • Pakoda: Deep-fried fritters, consisting of vegetables coated in a chickpea flour-spice batter. Popular options are onion, cauliflower and mixed vegetable pakodas.
  • Bajji: Similar to pakodas, but the battery is a little more watery. Popular options are bajjis made with plantain, potato, onion and long green chillies.

Non-vegan items to look out for, containing milk, curd and ghee:

  • Avial
  • Mor kuzhambu
  • Curd rice
  • Butter, ghee and paneer dosas
  • Sweets


I hope this post was useful for anyone looking to explore vegan Indian food options! I might be coming out with a similar veganized North Indian list as well.

Have you tasted any of these vegan Indian dishes before, and did you like them? Let’s get talking in the comments section below. ๐Ÿ™‚

Until next time, see you soon!



4 thoughts on “A Guide to Vegan South Indian Food.

  1. Ahh, can so relate! I’m Tamil from a Brahmin Iyer family as well and I eat every single one of these dishes all the time! They are amazing and am proud to be a South Indian since their food is amazing haha. Great post and helpful guide ๐Ÿ™‚


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