**Amruta Nargundkar is a devoted pet lover and innovative vegan. Her writing is balanced yet sensitive and funny at once.**
I have been vegetarian all my life, but in 2014 I made the (very difficult) decision to become vegan, i.e. stop consuming any animal products, including dairy, eggs, and honey. I realised I couldn’t ignore the overwhelming evidence of cruelty to animals in agriculture industries. For example, all over the world, dairy farming has become synonymous with factory farming. (Factory farms are mega farms where animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens are bred and kept in inhumane conditions, for human consumption.)
Due to growing population, a higher demand for milk products (milk, ghee, milk powder, milk solids, butter, butter fat, buttermilk, curds, yoghurt, yoghurt powder, cheese, cream, whey, whey protein isolate, rennet, paneer, kharvas, casein, caseinate, lactose, etc.) and a higher buying power in consumers, milk production is greater than ever before.
We want the convenience of being able to buy milk products, sweets, biscuits, cakes, burgers, pizzas, etc. at any time, as our mood suits us, but cows are paying the price for that convenience. In dairy farms these days, cows are little more than “assets” – cogs in the wheels of production. Their value is only based on their yield, and they are rarely seen as sentient beings who feel pain, or have personalities.
Despite knowing this, it took me a long time to finally give up all animal products. It’s not easy to change what you eat. One of my biggest concerns with becoming vegan was the loss of identity. I suspect for many of us, who we are is greatly influenced by our favourite foods and the time spent with our families in the kitchen.
“Will I lose my culture if I stop eating dahi bhaat, basundi, or gulab jamun? What if I just become one of those tofu and kale eating vegans whose lives are dryer than cardboard?”
I imagined a lifetime of Diwalis spent without sweets because every sweet had khava, dahi, doodh or toop.
In the early days of my vegan transition, my family had these concerns, too. Veganism was an extreme and alien concept: my dad once called it a cult; my grandmother begged me to eat dairy on Ganesh Utsav, saying “आजच्या दिवशीतरी दूध तूप खा” (at least consider eating dairy just for this day); and my poor mother, supportive as she was, couldn’t figure out how to use strange tasting plant milks to make any of our sweets. It also didn’t help that soy milk reminded mum of the horrible UNICEF powdered milk she was made to drink at school, as a child.
Our first attempts at veganising Indian sweets were disastrous. I remember a painful hazelnut milk basundi, me trying valiantly to look pleased with the outcome, and mum’s face reflecting a mixture of pity and encouragement upon tasting that syrupy mess. The bad basundi was followed by failed phirni, gross gulab jamun (made of sweet potato and bread) and waxy wadi (made entirely of macadamias). It was hard not to be discouraged in those early days. I didn’t realise that the gap between vegetarian and vegan would be so hard to traverse for me and my family.
After some time, my sister joined me and gave up animal products too. That was the start of a new commitment by our family to make this vegan thing work. Mum was our biggest support. She understood our commitment to our ethics, and that made her even more determined to help us have our vegan cake and eat it too.
We discovered a fantastic soy milk brand (Bonsoy) and coconut milk yoghurt. We also discovered that refined coconut oil had all the emollient properties of toop and none of the khobrel tel smell. A couple of other discoveries were: almond or cashew meal acted like khava in wadis and ladus, and coconut cream added creaminess without coconut smell to all sorts of western and Indian sweets. These ingredients now form the bases of all our Diwali sweets.
With soy milk and coconut cream we make gavachi kheer, shevyachi kheer, and basundi. With coconut yoghurt we make shrikhand and jilbi. With coconut oil we make besan ladu, boondi ladu, dinkache ladu all sorts of wadis, and sheera (that also has coconut cream in it). With almond/ cashew meal we make rava naaral ladu and burfi. We make puran poli, karanji, and chirote without toop.
Life is good and full of sweets! Our Diwali is doubly joyous because we get to eat our favourite food, and we know that we are contributing to a kinder world for cows. In fact, my dad has proclaimed vegan shrikhand to be better than dairy shrikhand because of its lighter texture. This is a long way to come for the person who thought veganism was a cult!
Now, everyone in our family wholeheartedly enjoys vegan sweets, because they taste absolutely the same (sometimes better) than milk based ones, and because veganism doesn’t get in the way of our cultural identity. As we enjoy our Diwali faral this year, we will sing our favourite Diwali song that my आजी taught us from her childhood:
Happy Diwali to all the readers of Angat Pangat! In this festive season, I wish you the courage to take those difficult leaps of faith, and the wisdom to know that things will work out for the best.