It's only when you start actively trying to avoid dairy that you realise just how many foods contain it! Indian food is no exception. However, the good news is that it is possible to enjoy dairy-free Indian food, provided you know what dishes are likely to contain it. And I'm here to help. Today we look at milk-free curries and Indian dishes so you can say "later" to lactose!
Are Any Indian Dishes Dairy Free? | The Quick Answer
There are plenty of Indian and curry dishes that are dairy-free. Indian cuisine features many dishes that contain no dairy products whatsoever. Provided you choose dishes that are less creamy and more vegetable-based, there are lots of options to try, this includes starters and main courses.
Here's a quick list of some of the Indian dishes you'll find that is entirely dairy-free: -
- Onion bhajis
- Rogan Josh
… And countless others. You can see detailed descriptions of these dishes and get more information below.
Here are a few that will almost certainly contain milk and dairy products: -
Type of Indian Food
Dairy Commonly Featured
Cream, yoghurt, ghee
Butter, Cream, ghee
Any curry featuring 'paneer.'
While the above will all ensure that you can steer clear of lactose, you'll already be aware that there are hundreds of curry dishes available, and it would be impossible to list them all
By knowing how milk and dairy could sneak into your curry, you'll be in a prime position to avoid it.
Here's what you need to know and how to ensure you are eating dairy-free Indian food.
Does Curry Have Milk in it?
The real answer is that certain curries do contain milk, dairy, or sometimes both! And it isn't always obvious either. In some cases, it isn't readily apparent that there is any dairy in your curry at all.
In order to miss the moo-juice, you need to know some common dairy ingredients that are most often used in curry and Indian dishes. They are as follows: -
Common Sources of Dairy in Indian Cuisine
This is perhaps one of the most obvious dairy sources in curry and Indian cooking. The cream makes curry dishes thicker, richer and give a silky-smooth texture.
Indian chefs will add cream to curry during the cooking stage and as a final garnish in a swirl. Normally this is either single or double cream. It is normally pretty obvious if it is used as a garnish, as you'll have a huge white swirl on top of your curry.
It can sometimes be a little less obvious if dairy cream is used while cooking your curry. However, there are a few telltale signs you can look for: -
- Paler curries
- Dishes with visible curdling
- Any curries with the word 'creamy' in the description.
The good news with cream is that you can ask for it to be left out or skip it entirely if you are making authentic curry at home.
All the taste in a dairy-free curry? You bet!
Ghee in curry is a little bit of a sneaky one.
Because it isn't obvious… But, it is a dairy product.
For the uninitiated, ghee is a form of clarified butter used in place of (and often alongside) cooking oil to fry Indian dishes and curries. Most of the milk solids are removed. However, there is no guarantee that they are entirely absent.
From a lactose point of view, ghee certain contains less than regular butter. However, suppose you have severe allergies, intolerances, or are avoiding dairy from an ethical standpoint. In that case, you will almost certainly want to avoid ghee.
The good news is that there are many ghee alternatives, which you can find here if you want to prepare a curry at home.
Yoghurt is used extensively in Indian cooking. You'll find it in: -
- Certain rice dishes
Chefs will often add yoghurt to dishes to give them a thicker texture and a slightly sour taste. It isn't always obvious either.
Want an example?
You'll find that keema curry actually contains yoghurt. While this is a meat-based dish, it is given a rich and thick texture by including yoghurt. It isn't what most would normally consider to be a 'dairy' dish. Which is proof that you need to be a little cautious if you are avoiding milk or dairy.
Paneer is a special one, and due to its exotic name, it might not be immediately obvious as to what this really is in Indian cooking.
Here's the answer.
Paneer is a form of cheese. It may look very much like cottage cheese, depending on how it is served. Still, it is also compressed into blocks resembling something more akin to feta or halloumi.
The good thing about paneer is that it is relatively easy to spot. It is normally used as a meat substitute in most types of curry dishes.
Milk can sneak its way into your Indian food in many ways. So, it really pays to keep a good lookout if you are trying to avoid dairy. And I can’t say I blame you!
Sneaky milk? How?
Here are a few places where milk might be included in your Indian food: -
- Batters – This isn't always the case, but some restaurants and recipes will use milk to make crispy batters. Thankfully, in Indian cooking, this is relatively rare, but if in doubt, check beforehand.
- Bread – Some recipes (and some Indian restaurants) may include yoghurt or milk in their bread recipes. Yoghurt is a mild acid and reacts with baking powder to produce a leavening effect. If you are looking to make naan bread without yoghurt, look no further. I've got an article dedicated to it right here.
- Curry Sauces – Even dishes that, at first glance, look dairy-free may include milk. An example? Coconut based curries often contain milk. How so? Well, coconut milk is expensive. A block of coconut cream, when diluted with plain old milk, is significantly cheaper.
Looking at my above list of dairy-free Indian foods, you might be wondering why I haven't included meat-based 'dry' dishes like tandoori chicken or Pakistani lamb chops?
These dishes do contain dairy.
Yoghurt is commonly used to form the base of a tikka or tandoori marinade. The meat sits in this marinade for hours, and some soaks in, and sticks to, the meat, meaning it isn't 100% dairy-free.
We all love a nice poppadom from time to time, but if you are trying to keep clear of dairy, you need to be careful where you are dipping them.
Certain poppadom dips are made with cream and dairy. The main one to avoid is the raita style dips. This shouldn't be too difficult as the white colour should be a dead giveaway that there is yoghurt involved in the recipe.
Why Avoid Dairy in Curry?
There are plenty of reasons why you might seek out dairy-free Indian food. Here are the main factors that people normally consider when trying to keep dairy out of their meals and cooking: -
Avoiding dairy can be an ongoing battle for those who live with lactose intolerance. While rarely dangerous, it can make life very uncomfortable.
What is lactose intolerance?
In basic terms, milk contains sugars broken down by a naturally occurring enzyme, called lactase, in the body. People who have lactose intolerance don't produce enough of this enzyme.
The end result?
While Indian food isn't always the most gut-friendly, the cause could be lactose intolerance. Why not try a dairy-free curry and see if things are a little better?
It is important to note that a dairy allergy is not the same as 'lactose intolerance'. Should you be concerned that you are allergic to dairy products, you should avoid them entirely.
According to Harvard Medical School, symptoms of dairy allergy can include (but are not limited to): -
- Wheezing and feelings of breathlessness
- Stomach cramps
- Skin rashes
You Won't Find It Appetising
If creamy curry leaves you feeling cold, then fair enough. Personal preference may dictate that you would rather avoid having milk-based products in your dishes purely from a taste point of view.
Certain conditions could mean that you want to avoid dairy in your curry. Conditions such as Chron's disease and irritable bowel syndrome could be exacerbated by eating dairy products. When paired with spicy curries, this might not be the best option to go for.
When it comes to dairy-free curry, people's preference could be dictated by more than health concerns or taste issues.
While this is good news, dairy, as with other ingredients, like nuts, can sometimes be present without being obvious (or sometimes intended). In the case of ghee above, this looks very much like oil when heated but is animal-derived.
You may love the taste of dairy but have concerns about its origin and the conditions in which it was produced. This isn't only limited to vegans either.
The world is becoming more aware of the harms that industrialised dairy farming can cause. Many seek to 'do their bit' by reducing their milk and dairy intake or ensuring that they can be certain that their dairy comes from responsible sources.
The Quickest Way to Ensure a Dairy-Free Curry?
Regardless of your reasons for wanting to ensure a dairy-free Indian meal, there is a super-easy way to make sure that you know what is in your food.
Most curries and Indian dishes in Indian restaurants are prepared from scratch, so there is a good chance that the staff will know exactly what is in your curry.
And there's more.
Because Indian food is normally made fresh to order, you may be able to ask if the dairy element can be removed entirely.
Dairy-Free Indian Food and Dishes | At a Glance Guide
Ok, let's get down to it. Do you want to eat Indian food but don't want dairy? Here are some great choices that are entirely dairy-free.
Samosas are dairy-free and vegetarian (obviously not the meat ones). If you've never tried a samosa before, then you are in for a treat.
This dairy-free Indian dish comes in a triangular (non-dairy) pastry wrap stuffed with chopped vegetables and spices before being deep-fried to crispy perfection.
Another vegetarian (and dare I say vegan?) favourite is onion bhajis. These don't contain any dairy at all. Onion bhajis are finely sliced fried onions combined with a mix of spices and some chickpea flour. These are rolled into loose balls before being dropped into hot oil.
How do they taste?
Crispy and golden on the outside and soft and slightly sweet in the middle. They are full of onion goodness, and you really need to give them a try.
Often regarded as the 'king' of curries. Madras is an excellent choice if you are looking for a lactose-free curry.
The base of madras is made from tomatoes and onions. Its consistency certainly isn't creamy. In fact, it is quite the opposite. This one is slightly tangy and pretty fiery. When ordering, just be careful that the restaurant doesn't include a swirly cream 'garnish' on top.
Let's stick with the spicy dairy-free curries for just a minute.
Jalfrezi, meaning 'hot fry', is a sort of fusion dish. Part stir fry, part curry, and very very tasty. Jalfrezi has a slightly drier consistency than many other curries. This is aided by the fact that it doesn't contain any cream, yoghurt, or any other dairy.
Balti is a real curry house favourite and is many people's go-to choice when it comes to choosing a curry from an Indian takeaway. Balti is a medium spiced dish laden with strong tastes and flavours. There is a lot of tomato, onion and a tangy taste. There is no dairy in this dish.
Rogan josh is a classic curry. Again you'll find a distinct lack of dairy. The sauce is made up of a mixture of tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger and chilli, and a few other additions and spices. This is a slightly more fragrant curry than a bhuna, but it has a broadly similar taste (if a little hotter)
A few mouthfuls of this, and you might actually be requesting a glass of milk! (Dairy is one way to make curry less spicy).
The vindaloo is somewhat of a staple curry for spice lovers. It is a very hot curry with fresh and powdered chilli undercut by an onion and tomato base.
Again, you may want to ensure that it isn't served with a swirl of cream. Provided it isn't, it is one fiery and dairy-free curry.
Oil and dairy don't mix, so this is an excellent choice if you are looking for a dairy-free Indian meal. Bhuna is well known as a really oily curry. Its flavour is one of strong onions with a very thick gravy. Order this with a nice fluffy naan, and you are good to go.
If you like sweetness, but don't want to risk a dairy laden curry like butter or korma, then Pathia is a perfect choice.
This is a dish traditionally served with king prawns, so if you avoid milk and red meat, it is the ideal choice for a pescatarian! Pathia can be a little spicy, but it is full of sweet flavours and garlic and ginger notes.
Dhansak is a little bit like Pathia, but it has a slightly thicker sauce. The reason for this is the inclusion of copious amounts of stewed lentils. These break down and form a thick and slightly creamy base. (Note, while I said 'creamy', Dhansak doesn't contain any cream. So, if you are looking for a smooth tasting curry without the milk, this is a really superb option!
Dairy-Free Indian Food | FAQ
Got questions? I can't say I blame you! You want that dairy-free Indian food tasting perfect!
Here are the things I'm most commonly asked when it comes to milk and dairy-free curry: -
Is There Dairy in Korma?
Yes, there is dairy in a korma. Korma is well regarded as a creamy and sweet curry. You'll find that it is made with cream for certain, and in some cases, yoghurt is also added. There are alternatives to dairy in korma if you are making it yourself, and you can find these below.
Does Rogan Josh Have Dairy?
Generally speaking, Rogan Josh curry does not include dairy. This medium spiced curry has a base of onions and tomatoes, making it a great choice to steer clear of lactose and milk-based produce. Occasionally recipes may call for the inclusion of a yoghurt or cream garnish, but this isn't traditional.
Does Tandoori Have Dairy?
Surprisingly, tandoori food does contain dairy. While the meat itself is dairy-free, you'll generally find it marinated in a yoghurt mixture and sauces before being cooked in the tandoor. Suppose you have only a mild lactose intolerance. In that case, there aren't vast quantities of dairy, but you will want to steer clear if you are avoiding it completely.
Can I Be Lactose Intolerant and Eat Indian Food?
The answer is a resounding yes! There are plenty of options for Indian food that does not contain any dairy whatsoever. Many Indian dishes only contain small amounts of dairy too. So, if you only have a mild intolerance, you shouldn't see the effects too overwhelming.
Is Biryani Dairy Free?
Surprisingly, biryani is not dairy-free. The recipe for most biryani curries contains yoghurt. This is because, being a rice-based dish, biryani can get a little dry. The dish is richer and smoother with a dollop of yoghurt stirred in before serving. If you are looking for a lactose-free curry, biryani is not a good choice.
Are There Alternatives I Can Use to Make a Dairy-Free Curry?
If you are looking to make dairy-free curry, then there are plenty of alternatives you can use: Here are some great substitutes for dairy in curry: -
- Lactose-free yoghurt in place of 'regular' yoghurt if you are lactose intolerant
- Plant-based creams and milk, such as coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk and oat milk in place of regular milk
- Coconut cream in place of cream
- Coconut oil in place of ghee (this also adds a really nice coconut flavour)
With the above guide, you should be in a great place to make or choose a dairy-free curry. Start by choosing dishes that definitely don't contain dairy. Once you learn more about what goes into each curry, you can experiment and still avoid those with 'hidden' dairy. Heck, you might even want to try curry for breakfast!