Nisha Vora’s Journey From Lawyer to Plant-Based Chef
Plus, a recipe from her new cookbook for cheesy, veggie-stuffed Instant Pot lasagna
Nisha Vora, whose parents moved from Mumbai to Southern California before she was born, grew up in a vegetarian household but didn’t think much of it at the time. “I didn’t have that classic American love for meat,” she says, “Yes, I grew up enjoying McDonald’s burgers and Subway turkey sandwiches — we had pretty limited options where I lived — but I don’t think I ever thought to myself, this is the best food ever!” Vora’s passion for cooking grew out of this small town malaise and boredom with the simple Indian meals she ate at home. Though her family didn’t cook meat at home, Vora did on occasion, and it wasn’t until adulthood that she began experimenting with a plant-based diet.
Vora’s blog, Rainbow Plant Life, began as a creative escape from the stress of working in law. “I wanted to find an interesting hobby, instead of just watching garbage TV,” she jokes. The success of her blog inspired her leave legal work and pursue a creative career in food — the hard work paid off with the publication of her first cookbook, The Vegan Instant Pot Cookbook, this past June.
Read on to learn about Vora’s journey from lawyer to recipe developer, how she came to eventually get excited about Indian food, and her favorite childhood comfort dish.
Tenderly: What is your ethnic and cultural background? Where did you grow up?
Nisha Vora: My family is from India, they grew up in Mumbai. I grew up in the United States, in Southern California.
What kinds of foods did you eat growing up? Do you have any memorable meals you ate on holidays or special occasions?
Growing up, I’d say that about six days a week, we’d eat Indian food that my mom would make. It was really simple stuff, because she worked outside the home. Most of the time it was what we’d call rotli, dal bhat, shaak. Rotli is the Indian flatbread, and shaak is just a simple vegetable like cauliflower, peas, or potatoes. Dal is the Indian lentil staple dish, it can be prepared in a variety of different ways. And bhat, which is plain white rice, basmati rice.
We ate that most days, but for lunch or after school snacks, it was just Western food — sandwiches, burgers, things like that. My parents never ate meat, but they let us eat what we wanted to outside the house. And honestly, I didn’t love Indian food growing up, probably because I was so used to eating the same simple meals every day — it’s kind of funny now.
For special occasions, we would go to parties with the other Indian families in the area. And there was a lot of Indian food there, but nothing that really stood out to me. I don’t think I had very sophisticated taste buds as a child.
But one thing I do remember eating a lot, whenever I was sick, my mom would make us khichdi (which is also known as kitchari, depending on where you’re from in India). It’s basically a cozy lentil and rice porridge, really simple. The basic ingredients are red or yellow lentils with white rice, cooked in a pressure cooker until it gets really mushy and soft. I don’t think I remember liking the taste all that much, but it was just the comfort and signal of it — mom’s taking care of me, and I feel better! — feelings like that.
That’s so sweet!
Yeah! I actually have a recipe for it in my cookbook. It’s altered a bit, and I added things here and there. It’s super cozy comfort food.
Did you use pressure cookers before the Instant Pot craze?
No, not really. My mom has always used a stovetop pressure cooker, they’re very common to use in making Indian food. When I was maybe ten or eleven, she had an accident — the pressure cooker blew up on the stove. It left her with really bad burns on her arms, that she still has today. So I was like, I’m never touching one of those! I never used a pressure cooker until I got an Instant Pot around 2013.
My mom still has a pressure cooker — she’s still comfortable using the stovetop one, which I don’t understand.
When did you become vegan and what led you to that decision?
I became vegan in 2016. I started food blogging in the spring of 2016, and around that same time I became vegetarian. I just found that when I ate meat, I felt weighed down and heavy — when I cut out meat, I noticed I felt better. From there, I wanted to learn more about how our food is produced and where it came from, as I was getting into food blogging more. I’d loved cooking since I was a teenager, but the more I was starting to share my passion for food, the more I thought I should know about the kind of food I’m eating and where it’s coming from.
I’ve always been a compassionate, nonviolent person, so it was an easy decision for me to make.
That led me to watch Food, Inc. and then I watched eight or nine other documentaries in the course of three days. Seeing all that — learning about how billions of animals are abused — over a condensed period of time, that really opened my eyes. Beforehand, I had some vague idea about factory farms not treating animals very nicely, but I had no idea of the extent and severity. I’ve always been a compassionate, nonviolent person, so it was an easy decision for me to make. And I went on to learn about the environmental impact of animal agriculture, and how much it contributes to global warming. That’s become another huge, equally important reason for me.
How do you think growing up with a predominantly vegetarian diet influenced your experience transitioning to a vegan diet and lifestyle?
I’m sure it made it easier in some respects, because I didn’t grow up with that classic American love for meat. Yes, I grew up enjoying McDonald’s burgers and Subway turkey sandwiches — we had pretty limited options where I lived — but I don’t think I ever thought to myself, this is the best food ever! As I got older and started cooking for myself, I did eat a lot of chicken as my source of protein. I was following that myth that everyone subscribes to, that you need a ton of [animal] protein in your diet. So I did eat a lot of chicken, but it wasn’t because I particularly loved it, I thought it seemed like a healthy source of protein. I think I enjoyed fish, like actually enjoyed it, if it was prepared well and I had it at a restaurant.
But I didn’t grow up with meat and potatoes on the table, or a family that loved to grill. [Cooking meat] was never part of my life story, or my culture. I do think it made going vegan easier, though it’s not something I’ve consciously thought about until you asked me right now.
Is anyone else in your family vegan? How do your non-vegan family members react to your lifestyle?
My parents are vegetarian, they’ve basically been vegetarian their whole lives. They eat eggs and dairy — well, my mom doesn’t eat very much dairy because she’s severely lactose intolerant. So I’d say aside from pastries, which she loves, she eats a pretty heavily vegan diet. Not necessarily a super healthy vegan diet — it’s funny how you can do that.
My dad is a vegetarian, and my sister kind of eats everything. But since I’ve become vegan, she’s significantly reduced her meat consumption. I think now she only has [meat] on special occasions, if she goes out to eat. And when she’s at home, she and her husband cook vegetarian only. So I’ve seen some changes in the family, which has been nice.
When did you become interested in cooking?
I just wanted to eat better food, instead of having fast food every single day after school. I wanted to try new things, eat better, and have more variety in my diet.
I started as a teenager. It partially started, which is a little bit sad, because I was a little bit tired of eating the same Indian food every single day. God bless my mom, she’s a fantastic cook, but she worked full time and was the primary caretaker for my sister and I — she definitely didn’t have the time to make different and exciting meals. She does now, and it’s wonderful every time I visit home.
Learning to cook started as a response to that feeling. And we lived in, I wouldn’t say a food desert, but it was a really small town with nothing exciting in the way of food. Most of the restaurants around us were fast food chains. So I just wanted to eat better food, instead of having fast food every single day after school. I wanted to try new things, eat better, and have more variety in my diet.
You mentioned you’d warmed up again to Indian food as you got older — when did that happen for you?
It took me a while to get there! I love spicy food now, but growing up, I couldn’t handle spicy food, so my parents would always make fun of me, like are you sure you’re our child? Most Indian people eat quite spicy food. My dad can eat spicier food than probably anyone I’ve ever met! So it was a bit funny that I really couldn’t eat spicy food growing up.
Once I was older and started to enjoy spicy food, I was kind of like duh, of course Indian food is delicious. Not being able to eat spicy foods limited my ability to appreciate Indian food. I do think that with a lot of Indian food, even if it’s not particularly spicy, has a lot of complex spice flavor in it. If you can’t handle spice, you’re not going to like it very much. So really in my 20s, I started to come around to it, and I’d say in the last five years I’ve started to truly get excited about Indian food. It was a bit of a journey!
Going from law to something as self-directed and creative as food blogging seems like a complete change of pace — was that an intimidating transition to make? What was the moment you knew that you could go for it?
I’ll give you a little more context. I started food blogging as a hobby when I was still a lawyer at my second law job, because I had some free time. I wanted to find an interesting hobby, instead of just watching garbage TV. Food blogging started to take off, and after maybe six or eight months, I thought I could maybe find a job out of [creative work]. I definitely wasn’t ready to start food blogging full time, but I started applying to a few food startups in the city. I found a job at Hungryroot, which is a health food startup. They hired me based on my social media and blog — I didn’t have any professional experience, but they were a young startup. I did social media, photography, recipe development, copywriting, all kinds of different things for them, even email marketing. And as the company grew, I came to focus specifically on the photography and video, the creative visual assets.
While I was there I continued to build Rainbow Plant Life on the side, on Instagram, my blog, and YouTube. Then I started working on the cookbook. And after about two and a half years at Hungryroot, I decided it was time to work for myself full time. I left Hungryroot in July of this year, so it hasn’t been very long so far.
That totally makes sense, it was probably a lot easier to have something that was more of a traditional job in between!
Yeah, and I think I learned so many important skills while I was at Hungryroot. And I have plenty of friends who are like yeah, I’m just going to take the plunge and try this out, and that’s just not my personality! Sometimes I wish it were. But as the daughter of immigrants, and also having the personality to become a lawyer — those things just don’t result in that kind of attitude.
When did you get into photography? Did you have experience before you started blogging?
It kind of came with the blogging. I guess the one kind of risky thing I did before this career change was what I did after my first law job. My boyfriend and I met in law school, and after graduation we both worked in these big law firms as corporate lawyers for two years, and we hated it. We both quit and we took a backpacking trip around the world for six months. I became interested in photography then, because we were visiting so many beautiful places. Nothing serious, I just took and edited photos on my phone, but that made me realize I did have some creative skills and I felt inspired by the natural world.
When I started food blogging, I’d never taken photos of food before — and I think for everyone, your first photos are embarrassingly bad, but I knew it was something I was interested in and really wanted to learn more about. So I started practicing every single day before and after work, and learning as much as I could.
Where do you draw inspiration from when creating recipes?
One thing that’s amazing about living in New York is having access to some amazing farmers’ markets. And while I won’t say that the produce quality is as good as it is in California, where I grew up, there is just such a wide variety of things. Sometimes I go to the farmers’ market and pick up whatever looks good, and then bring it home and figure out how I want to prepare it — looking at things and thinking, what’s the best way to cook this? For a lot of vegetables, I think that’s roasting. But sometimes I want to experiment with different methods.
There’s also so much good food in New York. I don’t eat out often, but when I do go it, I’d say it’s to a somewhat nice vegan or vegetarian restaurant. I often get inspiration from meals that I have out at restaurants, whether it’s from the flavor components or how they prepared certain vegetables.
The biggest resource I use for recipe development is this book called The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. It’s a book with basically every whole food you can imagine — everything from apples to butternut squash to cardamom — and it lists all the other foods that pair well with that food, flavor-wise. So if I want to make a dish with an ingredient I don’t use often, like cabbage, I could look it up and find other foods I could use in the recipe.
That sounds like such a good resource!
It’s super helpful! I looked at it probably ten times a day when I was working on my cookbook.
What’s your go-to recipe when cooking dinner for others?
My cooking is quite seasonal. So in the summer, when we had really delicious heirloom tomatoes and peaches, I’d use them in a starter. Slicing up heirloom tomatoes and peaches from the farmers’ market with fresh basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sea salt, maybe vegan mozzarella or feta. It’s incredibly simple, but people are always blown away by how fresh and flavorful it is.
In the fall and winter, it’s obviously very different. For the holidays, I like to make a kale and Brussels sprout salad. Most people try and avoid raw kale and Brussels sprouts, but I mix it with a really creamy cashew cesar dressing, sliced apples, and toasted nuts. And everyone always loves it and asks for the recipe — they’re eating something super healthy and don’t even know it! It’s exciting.
And my desserts are usually pretty popular with people, so if I’m going to a holiday party I usually bring some sort of cake or tart, or brownies.
What advice do you have for new vegans or someone considering veganism?
Try to shift your perspective from thinking about what you can’t have into thinking about what you can have. I think so many people assume that vegan food is super limiting, and there are so many wonderful plant-based options and exciting ways to cook plant-based foods that I don’t think people necessarily focus on. Focus on food you’re excited to have, and find a couple of food blogs that you really like, and start with a few recipes until you get comfortable with a few different recipes that you can add to your arsenal. And once you get comfortable with those, find another three to five, until you’re at a place where you’re confident with the cooking methods for plant-based foods. Once you feel more confident in the kitchen, you’ll be more comfortable cooking vegan food and finding exciting ways to make it delicious.
Nisha shared a recipe from her recently published cookbook with Tenderly — scroll down for her Instant Pot Lasagna!
Vegan Instant Pot Lasagna
- Two tablespoons olive oil
- One small yellow onion, diced
- Four garlic cloves, minced
- One cup finely chopped zucchini
- 3⁄4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
- One cup chopped mushrooms
- 1⁄3 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped, plus more for garnish
- One teaspoon kosher salt Freshly cracked black pepper
- One and a 1/2 cups marinara sauce of choice, or Fiery Arrabbiata Sauce (recipe in my cookbook, The Vegan Instant Pot Cookbook)
- Six to eight individual no-boil or oven-ready lasagna sheets
- Basil ricotta (recipe follows), or two cups shredded vegan mozzarella or other cheese
- One cup chopped spinach or shredded Tuscan (lacinato) kale
- 1/2 cup shredded vegan mozzarella, for finishing (optional)
Basil Ricotta(makes about 2 cups)
- One (14-ounce) block extra-firm tofu
- 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
- Two garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- Two tablespoons white or yellow miso paste
- 3/4 teaspoon onion powder
- One teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- One tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 15 fresh basil leaves
- One and a 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- Three tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- Make the Basil Ricotta: Drain the tofu and blot away the excess water with a few paper towels. For a smooth ricotta, crumble the tofu into a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until you have a creamy, smooth texture. Taste for salt, acidity, and cheesiness, adding more salt, lemon juice, or nutritional yeast, respectively, as needed. For a chunkier ricotta, place the tofu in a large bowl and break it into smaller chunks using a fork. Add the remaining ingredients and mix together until the consistency resembles ricotta cheese.
- Make the vegetable filling: Select the Sauté setting on the Instant Pot and, after a few minutes, add the olive oil, followed by the onion. Cook the onion for 3 minutes, then add the garlic, zucchini, bell pepper, and mushrooms. Cook for an additional 3 minutes, tossing frequently to prevent the garlic from burning.
- Add the basil, salt, and pepper to taste. Stir to combine and cook for 30 seconds. Select the Cancel setting and remove the inner pot.
- To assemble the lasagna: Pour the marinara sauce into a large measuring cup and add 1⁄2 cup water to equal 2 cups, stirring to incorporate (thinning out the sauce with water ensures the noodles will cook evenly).
- Pour 1⁄2 cup of the marinara sauce into the bottom of a 7-inch springform pan, spreading evenly with a silicone spatula. Top the sauce with half of the oven-ready lasagna noodles, breaking them into pieces and fitting them to cover the sauce in a mosaic-like pattern.
- Add another 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce on top of the noodles. Using a silicone spatula, spread one-third of the basil ricotta (or shredded cheese) on top of the marinara sauce, followed by half of the vegetable filling and half of the spinach or kale.
- Repeat the layers: Add 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce, followed by one-third of the basil ricotta (or shredded cheese), the remaining vegetable filling, and the remaining spinach or kale.
- Finish with the remaining lasagna noodles (broken into pieces), the final 1⁄2 cup marinara sauce, and the final one-third of the basil ricotta (or shredded cheese). If you can’t fit all of the lasagna noodles, just leave a few pieces out. You don’t want to layer them on top of each other because that might cause them to cook unevenly.
- Spray a piece of foil with nonstick cooking spray and tightly cover the pan. Wipe out the inner pot of any remaining vegetables and give it a rinse. Add 11⁄2 cups water to the inner pot.
- For easy removal of the pan from the Instant Pot, create a foil sling (instructions are in my cookbook or can be found here).
- On the counter, place the pan on top of the steamer rack (with the handles facing up) and arrange the foil sling (if using) underneath the steamer rack. Carefully lower the steamer rack and pan into the inner pot using the foil sling or steamer rack handles.
- Secure the lid and set the Pressure Release to Sealing. Select the Pressure Cook setting at high pressure and set the cook time to 20 minutes. Allow a natural pressure release. If you want to broil the lasagna in your oven, turn on your oven’s broiler.
- Open the pot and, wearing oven mitts, grasp the foil sling or steamer rack handles and carefully lift the pan out of the Instant Pot. Carefully remove the foil cover, taking care to not drip any condensation on the lasagna.
- If desired, top the lasagna with the 1/2 cup shredded vegan mozzarella and place the lasagna under the broiler for 1 to 3 minutes (depending on the strength of your broiler and the distance between the heat and oven rack) to brown the top. You can also broil the lasagna without adding the vegan mozzarella. Garnish with fresh basil.