I set out to write about Gandhi’s diet because I find Gandhi himself endlessly fascinating and because I love food. To be more precise, I love thinking about food. I like eating it too, of course, but a lot of the joy I get from food comes from thinking about how to cook it and what nutritional benefit it might bring to me and my family. Gandhi was similar; his passion for food was often driven by his interest in nutrition. But it wasn’t nutrition alone that inspired his many experiments in the kitchen or the hundreds of letters, notes, and articles he penned on dietary topics. Gandhi’s obsession with diet was as philosophical and spiritual as it was bodily. His relationship to food transcended the common divide between body and spirit. That’s why his diet fascinated me from the moment I began the research for my new book Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind. As I say in the book, “Understanding Gandhi’s relationship to food is to understand the man and his life, and to connect two of history’s perennial questions: how to live and what to eat.”
I originally saw myself writing something of a diet book in which I would praise Gandhi’s culinary practices—vegetarianism, avoiding sweets, eating whole grains, fasting, etc.—and discuss how to apply them in our world. But the more I delved into the history of what Gandhi ate and why, the more complex his diet became, and the more I came to see the darker side of some of his dietary obsessions. The book became about Gandhi’s search for the perfect diet—about his struggles and his questions, as well the answers he found over years of experimentation. I wanted to learn from Gandhi about food and nutrition—and I did—but I learned just as much from the social, political, and religious dimensions of his dietary journey.
I learned that food helped inspire Gandhi to fight for justice. His first sustained political activism was on behalf of vegetarianism. As a student in London and a young lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi’s dietary commitments connected him to communities of radical activists who questioned many facets of society. Those who rejected meat often also rejected sexism, racism, and war. Gandhi’s experiences championing vegetarianism prepared him to attack inequality, white supremacy, and other forms of injustice.
Gandhi’s diet was rooted in traditional Indian cuisine—particularly the vegetarian foods of his home state of Gujarat. But many of his dietary interests and practices were shaped by food reformers from outside of India. He learned from the African American scientist, George Washington Carver, famous for his experiments with peanuts. He discussed vitamins with scientists in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. At a time of resurgent xenophobia and chauvinistic nationalism, we can learn from the tolerance and openness with which Gandhi brought dietary ideas across the borders of nations and cultures.
When I started this book, I hoped to clear up some basic questions I had as a chef and a father. I wasn’t disappointed. My research shaped how I think about salt, sugar, dairy, whole grains, and fasting. Thanks to this book, there are new foods in my diet and new ways of preparing old favorites (the recipes at the back of the book have been well-tested). Nevertheless, more important than any specific lesson about cooking or nutrition, what I took from writing this book is the importance of continually reconciling our dietary practices with our deepest values. Gandhi wouldn’t want us to imitate him, but to approach our own diets with the same curiosity, openness, and integrity he brought to his. I hope readers learn about Gandhi, about food, and about their own path toward “eating with the world in mind.”
Nico Slate is professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the author of Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India and editor of Black Power beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement.
To learn more about Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet, read an excerpt in The Atlantic or buy your copy of the book today!