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.
Raw food appealed to him for many reasons. Chief among them was its simplicity. “That I could dispense with cooking, that I could carry about my own food wherever I went, that I should not have to put up with any uncleanness of the landlady or those who supplied me with food”—all of these reasons led Gandhi to praise the “extreme simplicity” of a raw diet. He also offered nutritional justifications. Like many advocates of a raw diet, he believed that nutrients could be lost in the process of cooking. He expressed special concern for the vitamin A “in leafy vegetables and germinated grains of cereals,” believing that “vitamin A is destroyed by the mere applying of heat.” In order to boost vitamin intake, he noted, “many people take raw vegetables, pulses, wheat, etc., which have sprouted after being soaked in water.”
Gandhi saw uncooked food as a way to cleanse the body and the world of impurities. His belief in the social power of raw food places him in opposition to the many philosophers and scientists who have asserted that cooking distinguishes human beings from other animals. The British writer Samuel Johnson put it succinctly: “My definition of man is a cooking animal.” The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used the dichotomy between “the raw and the cooked” to distinguish between nature and culture. More recently, the British primatologist Richard Wrangham has argued that cooking played a decisive role in human evolution. Raw-food enthusiasts tend to reject the divide between humans and other animals. Gandhi’s turn toward the raw reflected his ecological awareness that people cannot be separated from nature. But his raw diet was not a repudiation of civilization. Instead of equating cooking with civilization, he believed that raw food could make humanity more civilized.
Gandhi saw his raw-food experiments as “very important,” not just for himself but for all of Indian society. By reducing the need for cooking oil and fuel, a raw diet promised economic savings. “There is no need to eat food fried in ghee or oil,” he wrote in 1942. Eating raw also involved less time in the kitchen. Today advocates of “slow food” argue for a return to traditional methods of cooking and eating that prioritize flavor and quality over expediency. By contrast, Gandhi’s desire to liberate India’s poor led him to seek his own version of fast food. To the poor, a little extra money or an hour to spare every day could open up a path to a better life. The liberating potential of a raw diet inspired Gandhi to opine in a 1929 issue of his Young India journal that raw food has “a value not merely sanitary but also economic and moral or spiritual.”
Gandhi’s raw utopia would emancipate not only India’s poor but also its women. If cooking could be avoided, he suggested in a 1913 article, “much of the time of our womenfolk … would then be saved.” Once India had gone raw, he predicted, “women will be set free from the prison-house of the kitchen.” Importantly, Gandhi did not equate cooking with oppression. Anyone who loved to cook should be free to do so. What he opposed was a system in which women were forced to cook. By reducing the time necessary to prepare meals, he hoped, a raw diet could liberate women and return the kitchen to its rightful status as a place of joyful creation.
Gandhi strove to use his diet to bring swaraj, or self-rule, to every Indian. He failed. Poverty and injustice survived the end of British rule. There is good evidence that Gandhi helped reduce poverty and strengthen Indian democracy. Yet many of his endeavors, including his dietary experiments, proved dramatically less successful than he had hoped. He inspired some people to try eating raw food—but despite his efforts, a mass movement failed to materialize.
Today raw food is undergoing a renaissance: Restaurants specializing in raw food have sprouted in cities throughout Europe and the United States, and in many other parts of the world. Gandhi would likely have had mixed feelings about the recent surge of interest in eating raw. Raw food often attracts affluent foodies; in ironic contrast to Gandhi’s vision, the poor are the least likely to eat large amounts of raw food, largely because poor neighborhoods lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Such food deserts are common in American cities. In India, the poor often struggle to gain access to sufficient food of any kind. Gandhi hoped that raw food would undo the inequalities that have prevented poor people from having access to healthy food. His dietary utopia remains to be achieved.
This article has been adapted from Nico Slate’s book, Gandhi's Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating With the World in Mind.
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