For 11 days in the summer of 1893, Gandhi ate nothing but raw food. This was not his first experiment with what he called “vital food,” nor would it be his last. Later in life, he would go months without cooking his food. What makes those 11 days in 1893 remarkable is that he kept a food diary in which he carefully recorded everything he ate and everything he felt. He had arrived in South Africa only a few months earlier, a 24-year-old lawyer from India thrown into a profoundly stratified society. He had been kicked off a train for daring to ride first class, and had been physically abused by a racist stagecoach driver. Perhaps the shock of his new world and its inequalities inspired the young Gandhi to focus on something he could control: his diet.
The first entry of Gandhi’s raw-food diary, dated August 22, 1893: “Began the vital food experiment … Had two tablespoonfuls of wheat, one of peas, one of rice, two of sultanas, about twenty small nuts, two oranges, and a cup of cocoa for breakfast.” He soaked the wheat, peas, and rice overnight, but did not cook them. He took 45 minutes to eat the meal, which left him feeling “very bright in the morning.” By evening, however, he experienced “depression” and “a slight headache.” The next day brought more unpleasant symptoms: “Feeling hungry, had some peas last evening. Owing to that I did not sleep well, and woke up with a bad taste in the mouth in the morning.” On the third day, he “woke up uneasy, with a heavy stomach.” The heaviness lingered, as he suffered a persistent indigestion that lasted into the fifth day of his trial. “The vital food,” he concluded, “does not seem to agree well.”
On September 2, Gandhi returned to his usual diet. He delighted in “porridge, bread, butter, jam and cocoa.” Eating “the old food” left him feeling “ever so much better.” He did not, however, reject raw food categorically. Like a scientist, he never saw a particular experiment as the last word on a subject. Although his trial had failed, he declared in an 1894 article for The Vegetarian magazine, “Vital food may have its grand possibilities in store.” Gandhi would continue to experiment with raw food throughout his life. While he never permanently abandoned cooked food, his experiments with uncooked food grew more successful over time.