India is Already the Best Destination in the World for Vegetarians, So it Has A Head Start For Vegans: Wendy Werneth

Wendy Werneth is an intrepid traveler, vegan foodie and polyglot. She has travelled over 117 countries so far and as a vegan has explored 30 to 40 countries and written about her experiences in her blog https://www.thenomadicvegan.com/. Wendy had visited India in 2019 when she brought a group of vegan travelers to tasty fares in Bangalore and Pondicherry.

Wendy will speaking at Namaste 2021 on August 29th at 6 pm IST.

How did you turn to veganism? What was your initial initiation?

My journey to veganism started in 2014. My father had recently passed away from complications caused by type 1 diabetes, and the last couple of months of his life were quite miserable. Seeing him on his deathbed, I knew I didn’t want to end up like that, so I started looking into the lifestyle choices I could make to improve my own health.

That was how I discovered the benefits of plant-based nutrition, and initially I was mainly interested in it for health reasons. At first, I was just cutting back on my consumption of animal products and didn’t plan to go fully vegan.

But as I continued to educate myself, I learned about how my food choices were destroying the planet, and about the horrible things happening to innocent animals in the meat, egg and dairy industries.

The more I learned, the more I realized that being fully vegan was the only way that I could live in alignment with my own values. I took about four months to make the transition.

Wendy at the Golden Temple, exploring veganism

How does India compare as a vegan destination as opposed to countries which have very specialised vegan restaurants? 

It depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, it’s true that India doesn’t have as many specialized vegan restaurants as some other countries. But on the other hand, there are many naturally vegan dishes that are already part of traditional Indian cuisine.

This is especially true in the south of India. In the north, it’s of course still very easy to avoid meat, fish and eggs, as all restaurants are used to accommodating the many vegetarians in India who don’t eat these things. Dairy products are the one thing you need to be careful about as a vegan in India, but even so it’s not difficult to avoid them.

You can just ask restaurant staff to prepare your dish with vegetable oil instead of ghee, for example. Since many restaurant staff are not yet familiar with the term “vegan”, it’s best to be specific about the ingredients you don’t want (ghee, curd, paneer, cream, etc.).

This might be intimidating at first for vegan travelers who are used to eating in restaurants where veganism is widely understood, and where vegan options are clearly marked on the menu.

But personally, I much prefer trying traditional local dishes that happen to be vegan even though they’re not marked as such, as opposed to eating in an all-vegan restaurant that serves “international vegan” dishes that are not really part of the local cuisine.

What attracts you to Indian cuisine? How is an Indian vegan diet different from other countries?

I’ve always loved Indian food, and I continue to be amazed by the huge variety it has to offer. There’s such a mix of spices that every dish is always a new adventure.

The main difference I’ve noticed between vegan food in India vs. in other countries is that there are not as many plant-based meat and cheese alternatives in India. This is just fine with me, since I don’t miss eating animal products and don’t feel any need to recreate the experience.

In Western countries, though, it’s common to find plant-based versions of burgers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, etc. Whereas in India, where many people refrain from eating animals for religious reasons, the idea of eating something that imitates the look, taste and texture of animal products hasn’t taken off in the same way.

How does the veganism of different states and religions in India appeal to you?

On my most recent trip to India, I really enjoyed discovering many local vegan dishes that were new to me, particularly in the state of Karnataka. Through conversations with one of the co-leaders of our tour, I also had the opportunity to learn more about Jainism and how veganism coincides with Jain teachings. India has such a rich cultural and religious diversity, so no matter how many times I return there will always be something new to learn and discover.

Do you think given our huge proclivity for vegetarianism, we can become an attractive tourist destination for vegans. Is vegan tourism a big industry?

My answer to both questions is definitely yes. India is already the best destination in the world for vegetarians, so it has a huge head start over other countries when it comes to catering to the needs of vegans.

Vegan tourism already makes up a sizable chunk of the tourism market and is growing at an astonishing pace. Tourism-related businesses that do not respond to this change in the demand from their clients are going to get left behind.

You have travelled all over the world. How many countries have you been to and have you recorded the vegan stories in all these countries. Is veganism a cultivated choice, a societal trait or an environmental necessity? In a family of vegans, can veganism or vegetarianism be forced or should it be a choice?

I’ve been to 117 countries so far, but many of them I visited before I became vegan. As a vegan, I think I’ve visited 30 to 40 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.

I do my best to share as much helpful info as I can about these countries on my blog, The Nomadic Vegan. And I also publish guest posts by other authors on destinations that I have not yet had the chance to visit.

As for the question on whether veganism should be “forced” within families, I’m child-free by choice, so I don’t have experience with raising children and would not presume to tell other people how they should raise theirs. I find it very odd when people say that parents shouldn’t “force” veganism on their children.

Should parents not instill in their children their own values and the moral code that they live by? That’s what parenting is! Children already have innate compassion and empathy for animals. It’s only through societal pressure that they are taught to suppress that compassion.

Please tell us a little about your tour. Why did you choose the two south Indian cities of Bangalore and Pondicherry?

The tour was actually organized by a vegan company called Escape To, which specializes in sustainable, vegan tours to places on the Indian subcontinent. So while I didn’t choose the destinations myself, I was thrilled to explore this part of India.

I had been to Pondicherry on my first visit to India, back in 2004, but at that time I skipped Bangalore. To be honest, back then I didn’t think it would be that interesting, because in my head I had stereotyped Bangalore as a modern technology hub, and I was more interested in the traditional architecture and culture of India.

But thanks to the opportunity to co-lead a tour there with Escape To, I discovered that there was much more to the city than I had imagined. Traveling as part of the tour was a very different experience than traveling independently.

Both forms of travel have their advantages and disadvantages, but the tour was very special because Escape To arranged opportunities for us to share meals with locals inside their homes, meet with local entrepreneurs and activists, and visit community-driven empowerment projects. Those were experiences that I never would have had by visiting India on my own, and it really gave me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the country.

Are there any famous ambassadors of veganism from India?

Yes, and their numbers are growing! I don’t follow the lives of celebrities very closely (whether they’re from India or from anywhere else), but I do know that a number of Indian celebrities have adopted a vegan lifestyle or at least switched to a plant-based diet. A few examples are Alia Bhatt, Vinita Chatterjee and Sonakshi Sinha.

What is the most compulsive argument for people to turn to veganism today in your view.

There are many compelling reasons to adopt a vegan lifestyle. As for which one is the most compelling, that’s going to depend on the individual person and what they care about the most.

It could be the many health benefits of a plant-based diet, the fact that going vegan is the single most important step we can take as individuals to reduce our ecological footprint and save the planet, or it could be that they believe in non-violence and don’t want to cause unnecessary harm to innocent animals.

For me personally, the most compelling reason for going vegan was because it was the only way for me to live in alignment with my own values of compassion and non-violence. My conscience would not let me continue to call myself an animal lover while at the same time paying people to kill animals.

And compassion and non-violence are values that virtually all humans hold dear. We may have grown up eating animals and their secretions because our societies taught us that it was socially acceptable, but if we really look at the matter objectively, we will see that eating animal products doesn’t line up with our own moral values.