How difficult is it to be a vegan in Pakistan?
A few years ago, my sister went through an intense health nut phase. Before we knew it, we were making rounds to superstores and finding cartons of soy and almond milk. It didn’t take us long, however, to realise that entirely plant-based products that aren’t manufactured in Pakistan might be slightly expensive, so we moved on to the internet and looked up recipes to make our own soy milk at home.
Just because our attempt at making soy milk failed didn’t mean everyone fails at making it. Besides, soy milk is not necessary for survival.
The painstaking process of attempting to make our own soy milk was not only disastrous but also made me wonder how difficult and expensive it could potentially be for vegan people (whose diet completely consists of plant-based food) to have this lifestyle in Pakistan.
A lot of Pakistani staples such as daal chawal and sabzi roti are meals that are either already vegan or can be very easily made vegan with a few tweaks. But when you're eating out, most Pakistani vegan food options usually sound like starters and sidelines instead of main courses.
In recent years, a lot of Pakistanis have reduced their meat intake and resorted to a primarily vegetarian diet. This is reportedly because of the rising prices of meat and inability of many people to afford it. That is indicative of how eating plant-based meals is relatively inexpensive compared to meat-based meals.
On the other hand, the fact that dairy alternatives are not manufactured locally means that swapping out dairy could be heavy on the pocket.
A Pakistani vegan future potentially could be a sustainable and beautiful one with endless possibilities. Picture coconut milk raita, soy milk kheer and chai, sprawled across a dastarkhwan with vegetable and potato biryani. Very unfortunate for you if you’re team biryani without aalu but it's a beautiful sight to imagine nonetheless.
What is a vegan?
A vegan is someone who doesn't eat any animals or animal products, like dairy. That means no milk, no butter and no honey.
They differ from vegetarians, who don't eat meat but still consume animal products.
Most vegans also subscribe to the philosophy of not using animal products in their daily lives as well. For example, they don't use products tested on animals nor do they use items crafted out of animal skin, such as leather.
Why go vegan?
There are many reasons why one would want to go vegan. The appeal is very real, at least for me. The meat and dairy industries have huge carbon footprints and the environmental consequences of eating meat are major reasons for some people going vegan.
Another rather obvious reason is the sympathy that people have for animals. If people are privileged enough to have a choice, they do not want to be part of a system that is cruel to animals. Additionally, some may speculate that the health risks associated with meat and dairy are not worth an omnivorous lifestyle.
Although veganism doesn't have to be expensive, it is fairly well-known that being vegan might not be the cheapest and easiest thing in the world. Plant-based products should technically be cheaper but are actually more expensive because animal products are manufactured in bulk while vegan products are not.
In order to gauge how difficult and expensive it is to be vegan in Pakistan, I decided to ask the handful of people around me that have successfully been vegan for a while.
Pireh — sick of seeing animal abuse on social media — made the decision to go vegan two years ago. Her formula to stay on budget is fairly simple, she relies on whole-food options such as daal and sabzi. Alternatively, she cooks dishes like pasta and burgers at home while obviously making sure that any pre-made ingredients such as the uncooked pasta or burger buns don’t have animal products such as milk or eggs in them. She recommends the YouTube channel Cheap Lazy Vegan for recipe inspiration for anyone looking.
“It never gets boring, I don’t think you ever run out of options,” she says. While Pireh doesn’t eat out a lot, vegetable shawarmas, aloo and daal bun kababs, Subway, salads and halwa puri do the trick for her.
However, Pireh does acknowledge that it is hard to find substitutes for dairy products like chocolate and yoghurt. She explains that some things are inevitable, which is why being vegan can be emotionally overwhelming sometimes. That's why she recommends going vegetarian first for a while before making transitioning into veganism.
Pireh’s suggestion is not uncommon. In fact, Z*, whose Instagram page @ethnicalveganism is entirely dedicated to being a vegan in Karachi also started researching veganism when they saw their father experiment with vegetarianism.
“It was all about health fads and trying to motivate people to go vegan in order to lose weight, and that just is not viable,” Z says, highlighting an important issue that was initially linked to veganism. Back in 2014, when they started questioning the ethics of eating animal products, the fatphobic discourse was predominant. People furthering the rhetoric that one should go vegan to lose weight is harmful and can make individuals spiral into eating disorders, Z explains.
“... the reason I have been able to remain vegan for five years with no hesitation or regrets is because I constantly reinforce the moral merits of veganism.” On July 1, Z will celebrate five years of veganism. They explain that the driving force behind their consistency has been the commitment to abstain from being part of animal suffering.
Animal abuse is sometimes needless, Z says, pinpointing videos circulating on the internet showing disturbing examples of animal abuse such as millions of male chicks being ground up in Pakistan among other acts of cruelty.
However, another important factor that has softened the journey for them is supportive friends and family, so if someone you’re close to is going vegan or is already vegan an easy pro tip would be to make sure they’re comfortable! Z says one of the functions they hope their Instagram page serves is that of an encouraging support group for this very reason.
Z also acknowledges that some people might just have to accept animal suffering as a by-product due to their circumstances and reserves any judgement towards them. “It was a deeply intense and harrowing process for me to face what I was complicit in when researching what goes on at slaughterhouses and farms,” they recall.
Z decided to go vegan “for my health, for reducing my personal carbon footprint, and for my conscience” and they don't regret it at all.
While Z acknowledges that you basically can’t get purposeful vegan meat and cheese substitutes in Pakistan, and that soy milk can run out sometimes due to import issues, they revealed that we can find a lot of "accidentally vegan" products in Pakistani superstores. While margarine is readily available, Z suggests getting creative at home for other substitutes and gives us a few ideas: “Mushrooms or tofu or beans to substitute meat, ground flax to substitute eggs, and nuts to substitute milk and cheese.”
Before going vegan, Z recommends getting blood tests done to make sure you don’t have deficiencies such as those of vitamins B-12 or D.
Food for thought
While daal and sabzi are great alternatives, speciality vegan meals, like the ones you get abroad, are very expensive. They taste great, hurt the environment less and would be cheaper if demand increased.
“I generally don't spend a lot on specialty vegan products, so the chanas, coconut milk, veggies, and rice I survive on are extremely cheap. People who are low income can definitely adapt their diets to veganism and create satisfying meals while spending less than they would if they were buying meat, milk, yogurt and cheese," says Z.
"That's one of the main things I set out to do with my account too: show people that making satisfying vegan meals is 100% possible. The best thing about our food is the spices, not the meat!” they say.
As I’ve mentioned before, I did not see a lot of main courses on Pakistani restaurant menus that were explicitly vegan. Z surprised me when they mentioned that you can almost always get a meal successfully made vegan at a Pakistani restaurant. “There's always going to be rice and vegetables, or some pasta dish, all of which you can ask to be made vegan,” they say, alternatively suggesting getting creative and putting together different appetisers and side dishes.
But while restaurants might have vegetable-based meals to offer, Saba raises a very valid point about not knowing whether those meals are cooked in butter or ghee. She spoke about the limited options when it comes to finding vegan food in Islamabad’s restaurants, with a few Chinese places that offer tofu dishes being the exception.
With her conscience weighed down with thoughts of animal cruelty and motivation from some vegan family members, Saba went vegan more than a year ago. Having had vegan family members already, lack of family support was not an issue for her. Although she had to deal with some friends making jokes, all of her family and some of her friends are vegan now.
Saba does not believe in finding substitutes for animal products. “We really need to break our addictions and change our taste buds,” she says, expressing her distaste for meat and dairy. She believes that said products are more expensive than fruit, vegetables, and grains anyway. “If you're someone who's looking for 'vegan processed stuff' then it can be quite expensive, maybe because the demand is limited for vegan products,” she explains.
However, things are looking up as the vegan processed products that used to be expensive because they were imported are now starting to be locally manufactured.
“The tofu I get is locally made by Chinese people who are here or Pakistani people here trained by the Chinese people," says Shandana, the brains behind VeganEats Islamabad. VeganEats is a vegan bakery and dessert store that was started in 2018.
Shandana went vegetarian in 2006 and vegan in 2012 after reading research on animal cruelty in the meat industry and how the egg and dairy industries are complicit in that same cruelty. “I wouldn’t eat my own dog [so] I don’t see why it’s right to eat a chicken,” she analogises. Going to university in Boston, a liberal hub full of vegan options, made her believe that there was no excuse not to go vegan.
“Initially, I read the information I found online but I said it won’t make a difference. I'm one person, but when I did further research about how my actions can make a difference, it also helped me with my decision," she says.
"There are apps out there where I put in the year I went vegetarian or the year I went vegan, and they help calculate the number of animals I’ve saved.” For her, that's a big motivator.
One such app is The Vegan Calculator. The calculator borrows facts from Cowspiracy, an investigative film about the meat industry.
When Shandana moved back to Pakistan in 2016, she missed having vegan desserts, which prompted her to start baking desserts for herself and her family. That eventually grew into her selling her goods at a farmer’s market. “People purchased it because it tasted good in spite of it being vegan. You’re not gonna know it's vegan unless I tell you it is.”
She has some important things to point out about Pakistan and its relationship with animals and meat, including how meat is often tied to class. If you get rich, you want to consume more meat.
“I think in Pakistan the most important thing that needs to change is how people see animals," she says. Referring to her pet, she says, "She’s a street dog. We’ve had her since she was still a puppy. If she tries to get out people try to poison her or throw stones at her, so fundamentally that needs to change in Pakistan."
Another thing that needs to change, according to Shandana, is how veganism is considered something elite and western. "Veganism is for everyone. My veganism is rooted in equality, in the idea that everyone has the right to life. Not just for the animals but also for everyone to have access to information.”
She believes that there could potentially be a vegan future in Pakistan if more people had access to information and that veganism is cheap if done right. There is no arguing with the fact that right now, most of the information rests in the hands of the more privileged and she concedes to that saying, “There’s definitely [more] options for people with privilege and money, access to information and the luxury to care about what they’re consuming.”
When I was looking into veganism in Pakistan, I couldn’t find too many narrative pieces about being a vegan and having to live here but the few stories I did find were quite the source of intrigue.
My interest was piqued reading about Amna Bakhtiar’s experiences as a vegan from Australia visiting Pakistan, where she is originally from. I wanted to know how Pakistani vegans who live abroad get by when they travel to Pakistan, so I got in touch with a few.
Tehreem visited Pakistan and stayed in Lahore and Gujranwala for around a month. Like Z, Tehreem also documents her vegan lifestyle on her Instagram, @ecojabi. Her feed has pictures of fruit, OPTP fries, sandwiches and home cooked meals ranging from kung pao noodles to kachnar — a vegetarian desi meal prepared using the flowers of orchid trees.
Her family accommodated her diet and relatives prepared home-cooked vegetable meals for her. Tehreem thought her experience as a vegan in Pakistan was even easier than she thought. As most desi vegans agree, Tehreem believes South Asian cuisine has the best vegetable and bean dishes. That, coupled with non-dairy products readily available in Pakistan’s superstores, made her for a pleasant experience.
Other vegans who live abroad but had to live in Pakistan such as Zaheem and Rabia had similar experiences. "It worked out pretty well for me. There was an abundance of fruit on every corner and where I was staying had a whole bunch of fruit trees, so that was helpful as well,” says Rabia, who is transitioning into a fruitarian diet where most of her diet consists of fruit.
It's safe to say that being a vegan in Pakistan isn't a piece of cake, but it isn't as difficult as it's often made out to be. While the changes can be overwhelming initially, they aren't monumental and won't always cost you and arm and a leg. With awareness, making full use of the resources available to you and your heart being in the right place, there may be a viable vegan future in Pakistan.
Name changed to protect privacy