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Thursday, January 17, 2013

In Conversation with Anuradha Sawhney: A Peep into “The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style!” and a Happy New Year!

It's official. India's first vegan cookbook, The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style!, is out. This is a treasure at a time when India is waking up to the many disturbing realities of food production.

Food binds. It has always been a central part of everything we do – whether it be ceremonies or festivals or events or meetings or travel. Food sustains. It gives us what we need to live. And the vegan consciousness takes this given to a new, enlightened level of understanding. At what expense is our food being made available to us? The vegan mind questions.

This book is more than a recipe book. It is among the finest examples of mainstream vegan advocacy in the Indian scenario. It has Bollywood and it has the message. It has made a great leap in inspiring change with creativity and purpose.

Today, in our very first post of the New Year, we heartily welcome the versatile author of The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style!, Anuradha Sawhney, to share more about her book, her activism, her outlook, her journey, her message.

For those in the animal rights circles, Anuradha Sawhney needs no introduction. For the uninitiated amongst us, Anuradha is the ex Chief Functionary of PETA India. She is one among the early vegans in India and also among the early animal rights campaigners. She served the animal emancipation cause for nine years beginning 2000 working with PETA. During this time, she was ranked by the Femina magazine as amongst their 50 most powerful women in India. Currently she is the Director of the vegan food service and wellness center, Back to the Basics in Pune. She frequently writes on various aspects of animal rights and the vegan lifestyle in different mainstream publications. Anuradha lives in Pune with her family that includes seven rescued cats. She is a very busy activist and this blog is immensely grateful to her for taking time off to respond to the questions.

In Conversation with Anuradha Sawhney

Vegan India!: Thank you so much Anuradha for consenting to this interview with the Vegan India! blog. It is great to have the opportunity to do this interview with you. Anuradha, you embraced the vegan lifestyle in 2000 at a time when there were very few vegans in India and not much awareness. Please tell us what you feel has changed in the vegan scenario in India in the last 10-12 years. Also where is the movement headed, what is the next logical step, what do you see in the crystal ball in the Indian context?

Anuradha Sawhney: I am happy to be doing this interview. Yes I turned vegan in 2000, when I joined PETA India. A requirement of joining it was that I had to be vegan. So, though I was vegetarian before (a true confession: it took me many tries before I turned vegetarian for the final time, as giving up mutton was the easiest, giving up chicken and fish was the toughest), I turned vegan on the day I joined them. Within two months of joining, I was made the head of the India office, a position I held for over nine years, till I finally retired. During this time, I not only stayed vegan, I also found out that there was unimaginable cruelty that is still being inflicted on our revered cows. In fact, my colleagues and I at PETA put together a report on the state of the dairy industry in India, which was very well received.

In the year 2000, there were hardly any food choices for vegans. If you went out to eat, you could order any vegetarian Chinese dish as long as there was no paneer in it, at Indian food restaurants, you had to specify over and over that you wanted a dish that had no doodh, no dahi, no butter, no cream, no ghee, over and over. The waiter would seem to have understood the order, and then invariably bring the dish with dahi, or cream, or butter. I returned countless dishes back to the restaurant kitchens, and spoke with countless chefs, begging them to make me some food other than dal, bhindi masala, palak mattar, you get it! Very rarely, did I ever get my wish.

If I wanted to cook at home, the choice was as dismal. I was forced to cook simple, basic fare, like the aforementioned dishes, as there were no decent vegan cooking ingredients available in the market. Yes, you got soya milk in different flavours, and yes, you also got tofu, but they tasted terrible! It was only one company making these products, and no one must have told them that their products tasted terrible! It seemed everything tasty was made in ghee, and I had to forgo Indian sweets for many years since not only did they contain ghee, they contained milk or its derivatives like khoya. If I had not turned vegan for the animals, and if I was not passionate about animals, I would have given it up in a heartbeat, the food choices were so dismal.

Today of course, it is very easy to turn vegan in India. Lucky you if you have decided to turn vegan at this point of time! Now in almost every decently stocked supermarket, one can find fake meat products. The soya milk available now has the flavor of the soya bean removed from it, which makes it very palatable to the taste, unlike the options I had back in 2000. The milk tastes so good that one can even have a cold coffee or a hot chocolate with no compromise on taste. And you also find almond milk and rice milk and cashew milk, all really tasty and all healthy alternatives to milk. So now, instead of only consuming soya milk, you can try peanut milk, cashew milk, and almond milk as alternatives to dairy. It is now possible to find great tasting vegan sausages and burger patties and mince pies, sitting cheek by jowl in the freezer section of supermarkets! Things are looking up! An Indian company has already started to produce fake meat products as they have seen the huge potential for these products.

Eating wholegrain, oil free, plant-based diets is fast becoming the norm in today’s age of high cholesterol, obesity, lifestyle-based cancers, hypertension, and adult-onset diabetes. The recipes in my book fit the bill of being nutritious, whole grain, and plant-based to a T!

Feeding half the world’s grain crop to animals raised for meat, eggs, and milk instead of directly to humans is a significant waste of natural resources, including fossil fuels, water, and land. To meet the daily nutritional needs of a rapidly expanding population, the world’s human community needs to reduce its reliance on animal products and shift to a more plant-based diet.

Some points to think about:

•    Meat production typically uses 5, 20, or even 100 times the land, water, and energy that plant food production does. As much as 80% of the global soybean crop and 40-50% of the annual corn crop are fed to cattle, pigs, chickens, and other animals used in agriculture.

•    According to recent research by the International Food Policy Research Institute, if this practise continues, the global meat industry “may find itself in a position of competing with poor people for cereals” and other grains used as feed stocks for farmed animals.

•    According to the UN Environment Programme, “stabilizing the current meat production per capita by reducing meat consumption in the industrialized world and restraining it worldwide to 2000 level of 37.4/kg/capita in 2050 would free estimated 400 million tons of cereal per year for human consumption”. That is enough food to satisfy the annual caloric needs for more than 1 billion people.

•    Raising animals for food requires substantially greater quantities of water than raising plants for human consumption. It can take 5 times as much water to supply 10 grams of protein from beef than from rice, and 20 times more water to supply 500 calories from beef than from rice. According to the International Water Management Institute and the Stockholm International Water Institute, an average of 6 m3/kg of water is required to produce 1 kg of chicken, whereas 0.4-3 m3/kg of water is needed to produce 1 kg of cereals.

•    At cattle slaughter plants globally, 44-60% of total water used for processing is utilized during slaughter, evisceration, and de-boning. A “conservative” estimate by FAO in 2005 found that processing chickens for meat uses 1.9 km3 (0.45 mi3), which represents 0.05% of all water used globally.

•    In a growing world in which nearly 1 billion people are already hungry, animal products represent an extremely wasteful choice of nourishment.

•    The land used to grow crops to feed livestock is 10 times what is needed to grow crops for human consumption. 70% of former Amazon rainforest is now used for pastureland. The increase of carbon dioxide due to forest clearing, as well as the tremendous methane production of huge herds of cattle, contributes a great deal to the greenhouse effect and to global warming.

•    According to author Keith Akers, the United States uses twice the energy per capita on food production than the less developed countries use per capita for all purposes. Even if 100% of all the land on the six inhabited continents were used for agriculture (including the Sahara desert, Greenland, etc.), and even if that land were as productive as U.S. agricultural land, there would still not be enough land to feed the world population if their diet continues to be a meat-based diet.

Vegan India!: You have inspired many. Who/what has inspired you?

Anuradha Sawhney: I have been inspired by the pain in the eyes of animals on the streets. A horse who is being whipped to pull a heavy load and who just cannot understand how he can possibly go any faster. A dog who comes wagging up to people because he just wants to find a human to belong to, so he can give that human lifelong devotion and gets hit by sticks and stones in return. A goat who has no idea that in a few more days, life as the goat knows it will be over, or a cow who is being led to slaughter following her butcher unhesitatingly and trustingly…. these are the things that have inspired me.

Vegan India! Coming to your recently published book, The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style!, please tell us how the idea of the book came to you? With a very stimulating introduction from you in the book, with very informative and scientifically-verifiable forewords from luminaries – Dr. Neal Barnard, Dr Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., and Mickey Mehta, and healthy vegan recipes from the kitchens of essentially the who’s who of Indian cinema, music, and fashion, please tell us what is the aim of the book as you conceived it? Who do you hope will or should read the book and benefit from it?

Anuradha Sawhney: The idea to put together this collection of recipes came about as a result of a true life incident. I managed to reverse the onset of certain heart disease for me with the aid of a nutrition-based vegan diet, along with light exercise. I learnt the importance of a nutrition-based diet the hard way, when in January 2010, I was told that I was on the way to getting heart disease. A routine blood test had shown that I had very high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, and I was advised immediate medication.

I was flabbergasted, as I had been vegan for 10 years by then and had always thought that eating a vegan diet was all I needed to stay healthy. What I found out was that it was also important to eat the right kind of vegan food. Eating no animal products was one thing, but eating processed food, and chips and wafers and chiwda and samosas, just because they were vegan…. now in no way was that a healthy thing to do!

On researching, and reading the book, Reverse and Prevent Heart Disease by internationally acclaimed Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., I realised that just because I did not consume any food from an animal—in other words food with cholesterol in it—did not mean I could not develop heart disease. I ate wafers, chidwa, ladoos, samosas, and pakodas like they were going out of style. I ate processed foods like my life depended on them. All of these contributed to trans fats, or bad fats, in my body. I ate hardly any fruits. I did not exercise. I did not eat whole grains. These were all ingredients for bad health.

I realized that I had to change my eating habits if I wanted to help my heart. I immediately started my fight against heart disease and impending diabetes (my sugar levels were also borderline high) by switching to a nutrition-based diet.

This book is aimed at anyone who wants to reclaim their health, and especially for those who have lifestyle-induced diseases like hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer amongst other ailments.

Vegan India!: How easy or difficult was it to get through to the stars to share a bit of their kitchen secrets? Any fond incident or memory that you may want to share? Do you have a special favorite recipe/s in the book? If yes, please tell us why.
Anuradha Sawhney: All of the recipes are foods that I love to eat! And ever since the celebrities gave them to me, they have become a part of my regular daily menu :-) it was very very easy to get the recipes from the celebrities; when I wanted their help to spread awareness on the importance of good health, they stepped forward willingly. They are all fabulous people. When I worked with PETA they were happy to help spread awareness on animal cruelty, and then now when I wanted their help to spread awareness on the importance of good health. It was very interesting hearing all the little tricks the stars used on their food. And I learnt many things, like a twist of lime can change the taste of a dish (Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar’s dishes), fenugreek and spinach taste awesome together with mushrooms (Sushmita Sen), chocolate mousse with tofu is not only tasty it is very healthy (Sandip Soparrkar), Avocado is one of the healthiest foods possible (Anoushka Shankar), oatmeal pancakes are so very tasty (Nitin Malik, lead vocalist of rock band Parikrama)…. I could go on and on.

Vegan India!: In India we have a strange dichotomy, most vegetarian families are traditionally high on dairy products. It came as a mild surprise when we read in your book that the recipes have been well received by over 2000 Jains and Krishna bhakts and they vowed to not touch dairy again. Could you please elaborate on that experience?

Anuradha Sawhney: Jains are traditionally against cruelty, and because their religion tells them to worship cows, on becoming aware of the cruelty meted out to cows in the diary industry, they are the first sect open to giving up milk, strange as it may sound to all of us Indians who are so deeply entrenched in a dairy-full life! The PETA dairy report was tabled at a Jain seminar, and when the video that goes with the report was shown, the audience present immediately vowed never to drink milk again!

Vegan India!: One of the most important topics you’ve touched upon is the need for vegans to stay away from junk vegan food, and avoid hydrogenated oils and processed foods. Could you please walk us through the oil free cooking that you discovered? Did you find it difficult to remove oil from your own diet? Could you share some tips about healthy vegan food and no oil cooking?

Anuradha Sawhney: I did not find it difficult to give up oil at all. That’s probably because I did it for the most important reason of all, health. But others who have followed my advice have often told me that they find it difficult to give up oil, and that’s because fat is an addiction, just like cigarettes and drugs. Your body gets addicted to fat and craves it. But one must be strong, and if you have been advised to give up oil, do it, it’s possible to cook very yummy food without a drop of fat. And the fun part of giving up oil was the discovery and invention of fat free recipes. I would say that today I can replicate any dish in its oil free vegan avatar. For more tips on cooking without oil, check out my book The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style! at

A meal spread from Anuradha's wellness center  Back to the Basics: Stuffed aubergine in peanut gravy with freshly ground whole wheat rotis. Spinach & radish salad with orange juice & sesame seeds. Sweet potato cutlets with fresh mint chutney. Green gourd & tomato health drink.

Vegan India!: You devote a part of the book to vegan desserts. We understand that veganizing desserts is understood to be among the most difficult part of being an Indian vegan, partly because of the high use of dairy in our desserts and partly due the lack of ingredients in departmental stores. What can be done/has been done to address this area?

Anuradha Sawhney: Not much has been done in India on a large scale to address this area unfortunately. There are a few random outlets which may have a few vegan desserts, and normally those desserts would be vegan by chance, not by design. I veganized desserts at home primarily because I wanted to eat them of course, but also because I took on the challenge of making vegan versions of desserts so I did not feel I was depriving myself of any food. Though there are vegan bakeries popping up randomly in areas across the country and I hope this trend continues.

Vegan India!: Please tell us the kind of food “Back to the Basics”, the vegan food service and wellness center you have established in Pune prepares. How has the response been so far? You also prepare fantastic varieties of vegan cheese through Back to the Basics. Could you please share their names, what they are primarily made up of, along with their pictures?

Anuradha Sawhney: Back to the Basics teaches people how to take back control of their lives using nutrition. Back to the Basics specializes in making organic foods that are full of nutrition, full of fiber, basically full of goodness. Our foods are all trans fat free, contain no cholesterol, and are vegan. We do not use any of the following: maida, white rice, white sugar, white bread, and white atta.

Another meal spread from Back to the Basics: Thai style vegetables with coriander brown rice. Tofu crumble. Tossed green salad with cranberries. Spinach-tomato health drink.

My foods help people manage work stress and related conditions like diabetes, hyper tension, and heart disease. The health advantages of a vegan diet have been confirmed by numerous doctors and nutritionists. A vegan diet strengthens the immune system and promotes longevity, health, intelligence, and balance. It has a preventative affect against cancer, as well as coronary heart disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Yet another meal spread from Back to the Basics: Brown rice biryani with cucumber raita. Corn idlis with carrot chutney. Kachumber salad. Pumpkin-amla health drink.

We provide organic, nutritious, wholegrain, oil free food packages as well as snacks for the afternoon time munchies, when people typically tend to eat anything at hand, with no thought to how unhealthy it may be. All our items are made of natural, unprocessed, wholegrain, organic ingredients.

My vegan cheeses have turned out to be quite a hit item! I prepare vegan feta cheese which is mainly cashew-based, cheddar cheese spread (people swear that its better than the real thing), and even vegan butter (yes you read it right, I have now ventured into making vegan BUTTER which I can guarantee you cannot tell the difference in taste between dairy butter and my vegan butter. I make plain as well as chocolate flavored butter).

Organic-vegan Feta Cheese from Back to the Basics

Back to the Basics can be contacted via email at or via phone at 09423033569 or via our page on Facebook at Our web site is still under construction but till then, you can find us at:

Vegan India!: Please walk us through your favorite ingredients in a vegan diet. What ingredients do you think are under appreciated? And a few ingredients that are a must in a vegan kitchen?

Anuradha Sawhney: My kitchen has every food item possible, as long as it is not from an animal and is wholegrain. So you will find all kinds of fruits, vegetables, pulses, cereals, spices, and nuts amongst other food items. I do not have any maida or any processed food in my house. My favorite ingredients are dates for sweetening dishes and nuts for making nut milk, quinoa, chia seeds, flax seeds…. my list is endless!

Vegan India!: You must have encountered many people who appreciate the tenets of veganism but are not sure they can convert. What advice would you give someone who is interested but afraid of taking the leap?

Anuradha Sawhney: Just do it! There is life after turning vegan, do not worry. And as long as you eat the right foods, you will have the best health possible in today’s harried and hurried world.

Vegan India!: Thank you so much Anuradha for taking time off from your very busy schedule to share your thoughts. We hope that in this New Year, more among us are able to heal ourselves and our communities by becoming conscious about our food choices. We hope more among us begin to acknowledge that we don’t make choices in isolation to the whole, our choices impact the entire ecosystem.



To read the PETA report on the state of the dairy industry in India that Anuradha has referred to in her response to the first question, you can click this link.

To get a copy of the cookbook, The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style! authored by Anuradha at the most competitive price, you can click this link.

For more interviews featured in this blog, you can click this link.