India has long been known for its vegetarian cuisine. One of its oldest active religions, Jainism, is primarily vegetarian. Ahimsa or non-violence was popularized in India by its most famous figure, Gandhi, who was vegetarian. So it’s not uncommon for people intrigued by plant-based diets to want to visit India to see its culture and experience its delicious food. However, because of India’s geographic size, it can be hard to choose where to go.
One of the best places to see for the first time visitor is Kerala, a small state in the southwest tip of India. Kerala has several unique features that makes it a fascinating and rewarding place for vegans and vegetarians to visit.
Abundance of Locally Grown Food
Kerala has three distinct topographies, separated by elevation, allowing for a limitless variety of agriculture. The lowlands are full of very lush tropical vegetation. The hot humid weather is good for growing rice, coconuts, bananas, and mangos. The landscape is dominated by rice fields and dense coconut forests. This region receives a lot of rain, especially from June to September, providing constant irrigation.
The midlands are higher in elevation where rubber trees, cashews, pineapples, and jack fruit grow in abundance. The weather is slightly cooler and green hills and deep valleys define the landscape.
The highest region is on the western slope of the Western Ghats Mountains. The main towns are at an elevation of 4000 feet above sea level, so the surrounding farms grow temperate vegetables such as corn, potatoes, and squash. Also, vast tea estates cover much of the steep landscape supplying India and the world with high quality teas.
Kerala is a very developed state and a top tourist destination. The people are friendly and highly literate. Cochin, one of the main cities to visit, has an interesting history. It’s where Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, landed in India in 1498, lured by the pepper trade. His house is still there to see. There is also an active Jewish synagogue in Cochin, built in 1568, the oldest one in India.
Kerala is home to the famous backwaters. The backwaters are a unique 900 kilometer network of inland waterways parallel to the coast. Large dikes separate the lakes from canals. On the dikes are the homes, schools, churches and shops of the villagers. People travel by canoes, ride bikes along the dikes, or take powered water taxis for transportation. One of the main crops is rice. Kerala rice is best known for its aromatic flavor. Large wooden barges were used to transport rice from the fields up the canals to the main seaport of Cochin.
One of the best ways to enjoy the bountiful array of vegetables and fruit grown locally is to take an overnight cruise on a traditional rice barge through the canals, rivers, and lakes around Alappuzha, a large coastal town south of Cochin. A rice barge is a long boat with a wooden hull and thatched roof covering the cabins, kitchen and viewing decks. The boats can be 80 feet long and have one or two decks. The entire boat is tied together using coir (coconut fiber) instead of nails making it eco-friendly.
For tourists, the rice barge is an inexpensive way to see the backwaters and to experience the colorful rural life. An overnight rental of the boat comes with chef and crew. Lunch on the first day is served, then a snack, with dinner at night, and breakfast in the morning before returning to the dock in Alappuzha.
When we booked the boat we asked for vegan meals which was easy for the chef to accommodate using all of the locally grown ingredients — spices, curry leaf, turmeric, coconut milk, fragrant rice, and limitless vegetables and fruit. For three great meals, we enjoyed fresh vegan Indian food with local ingredients, including a thick vegetable curry over Kerala rice and a spicy green bean, carrot, and mango salad.
For the first time traveler to India, it was a peaceful way to try its cuisine while experiencing the tranquil and tropical countryside of Kerala. For a vegan traveler, it couldn’t get any better!