Dahi Vada or Dahi Bhalla is the quintessential Indian street food snack. Crispy, lentil-based vadas or dumplings are dunked into a spicy, sweet, tangy yogurt sauce. These vegan dahi vadas are made with a vegan "yogurt" created with tofu.
I'll begin my post on my vegan Dahi Vada, or Thayir Vadai, a crisp, airy, golden lentil dumpling dunked into a creamy, tangy-sweet, yogurt-based sauce, by wading smack-dab into the squabble over tofu or, more generally, soy products.
I don't cook very often with tofu (perhaps once a month, if that), and the only soy I consume most days is a couple of tablespoons of soymilk in my tea or coffee. But for as long as I've been a vegan, I've listened to and tried to understand some of the criticisms fired at soy. Some of these include valid research and concerns from real people like you and me who want to make sure they are eating the right stuff when they move to a plant-based diet. But truth be told, a lot of the criticism comes from the meat and dairy industries and their minions looking to preserve their own business interests.
Then recently, I came across an unusually heated discussion over soy products on an Indian vegan forum. A large number of the people commenting seemed to be really nervous about soy and were vigorously exchanging links to articles pummeling it. Some swore how they had not touched soy in years, or would not hereafter. All of it really, truly mystified me.
Mystified me because, for one, the Indian diet has not been traditionally dependent on soy so I didn't really see why everyone sounded like they'd been eating a ton of it. Vegetarian Indians have long managed to balance their diets beautifully with grains and beans and lentils-- a gift, really, for modern-day vegans who don't have to look far to find delicious recipes, the way we here in the West with our long tradition of meat-based diets sometimes have to. But the other reason I was mystified was because this seemed to be a reaction based mostly on the gut rather than any sound understanding of the pros and cons of soy and the tremendous health benefits it offers.
With a vegan diet, perhaps more than any other, information is key, but the message can sometimes get lost in the din of voices weighing in from just about every side. You can find some very authoritative articles on plant-based diets that weigh in on the soy controversy, like this one.
Here's what I do to make sure I get all the goodness of soy in my diet while keeping any potential negative effects at bay:
I make sure I always buy organic soy products. I try not to eat highly processed soy foods on a regular basis, like soy-based sausages and readymade vegan "meats" or even tofu, although I do enjoy and eat these occasionally. Instead, I recommend eating soy in the form of edamame-- crunchy, delicious soybeans which you can lightly steam and eat as a snack or turn into any number of delicious dishes, like this yummy edamame hummus or edamame curry. I also try to make sure I eat a diet that does not depend largely on soy for protein: other beans and grains are just as rich in protein and offer welcome variety in a vegan diet..
Have you wrangled with the question of soy in your diet? Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.
My recipe for today uses tofu as a base instead of yogurt which is traditionally used for this dish in Indian kitchens. Tofu makes a great yogurt substitute because it is rich in protein, just like yogurt, but has none of the cholesterol of yogurt. It also tastes surprisingly like yogurt when seasoned perfectly. While there are alternatives to homemade tofu yogurt, like store-bought soy yogurt and nut-based yogurts, I find these less appealing for a number of reasons. Store-bought vegan yogurts are not easily available everywhere and are sometimes too sweet for my taste. Their texture can also be iffy. And nut yogurts, although a popular and delicious alternative, pack too many calories and fat. Half a cup of tofu, for instance, has just 100 calories and 11 grams of fat. Half a cup of cashews has nearly 400 calories and 32 grams of fat. Take your pick.
This recipe includes deep-frying, so it goes without saying that it's a once-in-a-while treat. But the ingredients in here are fabulously healthy: black lentils, or udad dal, besides the tofu. I use a few different spices to flavor the yogurt, and you can always experiment with your own favorite spices.
Enjoy the recipe, all!
More vegan Indian street food recipes
Vegan Dahi Vada
For the vada
- 1 cup urad dal (black gram dal, soaked for 2 hours)
- 1- inch knob ginger (chopped)
- 3 green chili peppers (minced. Can use less if sensitive to heat)
- Salt to taste
- Vegetable oil for deep frying (heated to around 360 degrees)
For the dahi or spiced yogurt
- 12 oz silken firm tofu
- ½ cup nondairy milk (add more if the yogurt sauce is too thick)
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds (roasted, powdered)
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon chat masala (optional)
- Salt to taste
Make the vada
- Drain the soaked dal thoroughly. Place in a food processor with the ginger and chillies and salt and process into a coarse, fairly solid paste.
- Form the vadas by picking up a lump of the batter, about one inch in diameter, and pressing it out on the palm of your hand (I like dampening my palms with some water to prevent the batter from sticking.)
- Drop the vadas one by one into the hot oil without overcrowding them. Flip the vada when the underside turns golden-brown. Remove to a rack or a paper towel when the vada is golden-brown all over.
- Tip: Always ensure your oil is not too hot or too cold. Too cold oil will cause the food to absorb the oil, which is bad for your waistline, of course, but will also end up in soggy vadas. Oil that is too hot will cause the outside of the vada to brown rapidly, before the inside gets cooked.
For the spiced yogurt sauce
- Place all the ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.
- To serve the vadas, pool some of the sauce in the platter, place the vadas in the center, and pour more sauce on top. I like my vadas to be more on the crispy side, so I tend not to pour sauce over the top, but it's up to you, really. You can also sprinkle some paprika and some roasted, powdered cumin on top, for a little extra zing.
We don't consume any soy but that is due to reacting poorly to it. My husband lived in Japan for two years where soy is consumed regularly but they are generally much healthier than Americans. I think it comes down to the type of soy that is eaten. In the US it is gmo soy that is heavily processed so it doesn't hardly resemble the original product. In Japan they most often consume soy as edamame, tofu, soy sauce, or nato, which are all either fresh or fermented products without a ton of processing. So just like we chose all our food, look for simple clean ingredients that are as close to the whole foods as possible.
Thank you for this space to discuss things politely 🙂
Anon, yes, silken tofu would be perfectly fine.
can we use silken tofu?
dropped by to see if there were any more soy discussions:) as the only vegan house in my friend circle.. we have to be the encyclopedia of all sorts of questions.. including man boobs.!.. just saw another study recently that too much chicken when pregnant hampers with genital growth.. probably should be publcized to the guys..
yes, the dahi bhalla my mom makes.. she soaks them in water to remove excess oil and soften them.
I love the vadas! They're truly some of my favorites of all Indian dishes. As for the soy issue- I'm a vegetarian & a scientist, and as such, I have researched the primary literature on this thoroughly [papers that are untouched by corporate hands] and truly, you'd have to eat a GARGANTUAN amount of soy to cause any ill effects- assuming you are a healthy person. Also, yeah, the GMO & argi-business issue is another separate problem.
I agree with what you said- eat soy in moderation. Sometimes you need it- sometimes not. And whole soy products [I buy locally made tofu which is really the best stuff ever and is so fresh it poofs up while cooking] over processed as much as possible. Moderation, is ever, the key.
I have had so many discussions about tofu and soy with various people. Various studies come up with various suggestions and things to avoid etc. Few years ago it was about 'how coconut oil is bad for you' not its exactly opposite! If I decide to accommodate every recommendation in my day today life I will go hungry ... Everything in moderation should be the moto.
Hats off to your inventions Vaishali. Every time I read your blog, I am awed!! I will be making this one day!
My husband makes great dahi vadas ... I will try to beat the reputation with your help 😉
I want some of that right now :)...the vadas look so crisp, very tempting
yummy and delicious .....