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Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948)

From The Vegetarian Messenger (Manchester), June 1891:

The text of Gandhi's talk was considered of sufficient importance to be the first item in the 'Summary' on page 1 of the magazine:

THE HINDOO VEGETARIAN AND THEIR FOODS. - Our readers will be highly interested in Mr. Gandhi's paper on the Foods of India. We have heard till we are tired of it the talk of opponents of Vegetarianism about "the rice-fed Hindoo," and it is interesting to learn that the Hindoo does not live on rice, as a rule. We very heartily echo Mr. Gandhi's hope that Vegetarianism may in the future prove a bond between the English and Hindoo peoples.

On later pages of the same issue:

Read at the May Meetings of the Vegetarian Society, held in Portsmouth,
Wednesday, May 6th, 1891.

Before I proceed to the subject of my address I should like to tell you what are my qualifications for undertaking the task. When Mill wrote the "History of India" he, in his most interesting preface, pointed out how he was qualified to write the book, though he had never been to India, and was ignorant of the Indian languages. So I think that in following his example I shall be doing just what I ought to do. Of course the very idea of referring to ones qualifications for any task argues some sort of unfitness on the part of the speaker or writer, and I confess that I am not the person to speak upon the "Foods of India". I have undertaken the task not because I am thoroughly competent to speak on the subject, but because I thought I would thereby be doing a service to the cause that both you and I have at heart. My remarks are chiefly derived from my experience of the Bombay Presidency. Now, as you know, India is a vast peninsula populated by two hundred and eighty-five million souls. It is a large as Europe less Russia. In such a country the customs and manners in different parts must necessarily be different. So, if in future you hear anything different from what I am going to say, I request you bear in mind the above fact. As a general rule, my remarks will apply to the whole of India.

I shall divide the subject into three parts. In the first place I shall say something, by way of preliminary, about the people who live upon the foods. Secondly, I shall describe the foods; and thirdly, their uses, &c.

It is commonly believed that all the inhabitants of India are Vegetarians, but this is not true; and for that matter even all the Hindoos are not Vegetarians. But it is quite true to say that the great majority of the inhabitants of India are Vegetarians. Some of them are so because of their religion, while others are compelled to live on vegetable foods because they cannot afford to pay for meat. This will be quite clear to you when I tell you that there are millions in India who live upon one pice - i.e. one-third of a penny-a day, and even in a poverty-stricken country like India you cannot get eatable meat for that sum. These poor people have only one meal per day, and that consists of stale bread and salt, a heavily-taxed article. But Indian Vegetarians and meat-eaters are quite different from English Vegetarians and meat-eaters. Indian meat-eaters, unlike English meat-eaters, do not believe that they will die without meat. So far as my knowledge goes, they (the Indian meat-eaters) do not consider meat a necessary of life but a mere luxury. If they can get their roti, as bread is generally called there, they get on very well without their meat. But look at our English meat-eater; he thinks that he must have his meat. Bread simply helps him to eat meat, while the Indian meat-eater thinks that meat will help him to eat his bread. I was talking the other day to an English lady on the ethics of diet, and she exclaimed while I was telling her how even she could easily become a Vegetarian, "Say what you will, I must have my meat, I am so fond of it, and am positively sure I cannot live without it." "But, madam," I said, "suppose that you were compelled to live on a strictly vegetable diet, how would you manage then?" "Oh," she said, "don't talk of that. I know I could not be compelled to do so, and if I were I should feel very uncomfortable." Of course no one can blame the lady for so saying. Society is in such a position for the present that it is impossible for any meat-eater to leave off eating meat without much difficulty.

In the same manner an Indian Vegetarian is quite different from an English one. The former simply abstains from anything that involves the destroying of a life, or a would-be life, and he goes no further. Therefore he does not take eggs, because he thinks that in taking an egg he would kill a would-be life. (I am sorry to say I have been taking eggs for about a month and a half.) But he does not hesitate to use milk and butter. He even uses these animal products as they are called here, on fruit days, which occur every fortnight. On these days he is forbidden wheat, rice, &c., but he can use as much butter and milk as he likes; while, as we know, some of the Vegetarians here discard butter and milk, some do away with cooking, and some even try to live on fruits and nuts.

I now pass to the description of our different foods. I may say that shall not dwell upon the flesh foods at all, as these, even where they are used, do not form the staple article of food. India is pre-eminently an agricultural country, and a very large one. So its products are numerous and varied. Though the foundation of the British rule in India dates from the year 1716 A.D., and though India was known to the English much earlier than 1746, it is a pity that so little should be known of the foods of India in England. We have not to go very far to seek the cause. Almost all Englishmen who go to India keep up their own way of living. They not only insist on having the things they had in England, but will also have them cooked in the same way. It is not for me here to go into the why and wherefore of all these incidents. One would have thought that they would look into the habits of the people, if only out of curiosity, but they have done nothing of the kind, and hence we see the result of their stolid indifference in the loss to many Anglo-Indians of the finest opportunities of studying the food questions. To return to the foods, there are many kinds of corn produced in India which are absolutely unknown here. Wheat, however, is of course of the greatest importance there as here. Then there are bajara (which is called millet by the Anglo-Indians), joar, rice, &c. These are what I should call bread foods, because they are chiefly used for bread-making. Wheat, of course, is greatly used, but it being comparatively dear, bajara and joar take its place among the poor classes. This is very much so in the southern and the northern provinces. Speaking of the southern provinces, in his Indian History, Sir W. W. Hunter says: "The food of the common people consists chiefly of small grains, such as joar, bajara, fragi." Of the north, he says: "The two last (i.e. joar and bajara) form the food of the masses, rice being only grown on irrigated lands and consumed by the rich." It is not at all unusual to find persons who have not tasted joar. Joar being the diet of the poor, it is held in reverence, as it were. Instead of good-bye as the parting salute, the poor in India say joar, which, when extended and translated, would, I think, mean, "May you never be without joar." The rice, too, is used for bread-making, especially in Bengal. The Bengalese use rice more than wheat. In other parts, rice, as an article for bread-making, is rarely, if ever, used. Chana, or grain as it is called by the Anglo-Indians, is sometimes used for the same purpose, either in combination with or without wheat. It closely resembles peas in taste and shape. This brings me to the various kinds of pulse for soup-making, or dahl. Grain, peas, lentils, haricot beans, tuar, muj. muth, adad, are the chief pulses used for dahl. Of these, I think tuar heads the list in popularity. Both these kinds of foods are chiefly used when dried. 'Now I come to the green vegetables. It would be useless to give you names of all the vegetables. They are so numerous that I am sure there are many of them that I do not know. The soil of India is so rich that it can produce any vegetable you like. So we may safely say that with a proper knowledge of agriculture, the Indian soil may be made to produce any vegetable to he found on earth.

There now remain fruits and nuts. I am sorry to say that the proper value of fruit is not known in India. Though it is used in abundance, it is used rather as a luxury than anything else. It is used more for the sake of its palatable taste than of health. Therefore, we do not get such valuable fruits as apples, &c., in plenty; hence they are available only to the rich. But we get plenty of season fruits and dried fruits. Summer in India as everywhere, is the best season for the former. Of these the mango is the most important. It is the most delicious fruit I have yet tasted. Some have placed the pine-apple at the top of the list; but a great majority of those who have tasted the mango vote in its favour. It remains in season for three months, when it is very cheap. and consequently both the rich and the poor can enjoy it. I have heard that some even live on mangoes-of course, only while they are in season. But unfortunately, the mango is a fruit that will not keep long in a great condition. It resembles the peach in taste, and is a stone-fruit. It is often as big as a small melon. That brings us the melons, which also plentiful in summer. They are far superior to what we get here. However, I must not inflict any more names of fruits on you; suffice it to say that India produces innumerable varieties of season fruits, which do not keep long. All these fruits are available to the poor; the pity is that they never make a meal of these fruits. Generally, we believe that fruit causes fever, diarrhea, &c. In summer, when we always dread cholera, the authorities prohibit-rightly, too, in many cases-the sale of melons and other such fruits. As for dried fruits, we get almost all the varieties that are to be had here. Of nuts we get some varieties which you do not get here; on the other hand, some that are to be had here are not seen in India. Nuts are never used as food in India; and so, properly speaking, they should not be included in the "Foods of India." Now, before I come to the last division of my subject, I should request you to bear in mind the following divisions of foods that I have made: first, corn, for breadmaking, e.g., wheat, millet, &c.; second, pulse, for dahl or soup-making: third, green vegetables; fourth, fruits; and, fifth and last, nuts.

Of course I am not going to give you receipts for cooking these different kinds of foods. That is beyond my power. I shall tell you the general way in which they are cooked for their proper uses. Diet cure or hygiene is a comparatively recent discovery in England. In India we have been practising this from time out of mind. Native physicians, no doubt, use drugs, too, but they depend more upon change of diet than upon the efficacy of the drugs they prescribe. They would ask you not to take salt in certain cases, in many they would ask you to abstain from acid foods, and so on; every food having its medicinal value. As for the corn for bread making, it is the most important article of diet. For convenience, I have called the preparation made of flour, bread, but cake would be a better name for it. I shall not relate the whole process of making it, but I may just say that we do not throw away the bran. These cakes are always fresh made, and generally eaten hot with clarified butter. They are to the Indians what meat is to the English. The quantity of food a person eats is measured according to the number of cakes he eats. Pulse and vegetables are left out of account. You may make a meal without pulse, without vegetables, but never without cakes. Different preparations, too, are made of the various kinds of corns, but they are merely cakes in disguise.

Pulse for soup-making, e.g., peas, lentils, &c., is prepared by simply boiling it in water. But an addition of innumerable condiments make it a most delicious dish. The art of cooking has full play in these foods. I have known peas spiced with salt, pepper, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, and such like. The proper use of pulse is to help you to eat the cakes. Medically it is not supposed good to take too much of the pulses. A remark on rice here would not be out of place. As I have already said, rice is used for bread-baking, especially in Bengal. Some of the doctors trace the diabetes from which the Bengalese very often suffer to this source. No one in India would call rice a nourishing food. It is the food of the rich. i.e., of people who do not want to work. Labouring men very rarely use rice. Physicians put their feverish patients on rice. I have suffered from fever (no doubt by breaking hygienic rules, as Dr. Allinson would say), and was put upon a diet of rice and mugwater. Recovery was marvellous.

Next came green vegetables. These are prepared in much the same way as pulses. Oil and butter play an important part in the preparation of vegetables. often grain flour is mixed with them. Simply boiled vegetables are never eaten. I never saw a boiled potato in India. Not unfrequently they make a combination of many vegetables. It is needless to say that India would far outbid France in cooking vegetables nicely. Their proper use is much the same as that of pulse. In importance they stand next to it. They are more or less a luxury, and are generally supposed to be a source of disease. Poor people have hardly one vegetable once or twice a week. They would have cakes and dahl. Some of the vegetables have an excellent medicinal value. There is one vegetable called tandalja. It very closely resembles spinach in taste. Physicians prescribe it to persons who have indulged in too much cayenne pepper and spoiled their eyesight thereby.

Then come fruits. They are used chiefly on "fruit days," (Corresponding with European fast days, and probably established by religious teachers for hygienic reasons.-Ed.) but are rarely if ever used at the end of ordinary meals. People generally take them now and then. Mango-juice is very greatly used in the mango season. It is eaten with cakes or rice. We never cook or stew ripe fruits. We preserve unripe fruits, chiefly mangoes, while acid. Medicinally, fresh fruits, being generally acid, are supposed to have a tendency to give fever. Dried fruits are much used by children, and dried dates deserve some notice. We suppose them to be strength giving, and therefore in winter, when we take concentrated foods, we prepare them with milk and various other things too numerous to be mentioned, and eat an ounce every day.

Lastly, nuts take the place of English sweets. Children eat a great quantity of sugared nuts. They are also largely used on "fruit days." We fry them in butter, and even stew them in milk. Almonds are supposed to be very good for the brain. I will just point one of the various ways in which we use the cocoanut. It is first ground, and then mixed with clarified butter and sugar. It tastes very nice. I hope some of you will try at home those coconut sweet balls as they are called. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a sketch - a most imperfect sketch - of the foods of India. I hope you will be induced to learn more about them, and I am sure you will profit by doing so. In conclusion, I further hope the time will come when the great difference now existing between the food habits of meat-eating England and grain eating India will disappear, and with it some other differences which, in some quarters, mar the unity of sympathy that ought to exist between the two countries. In the future I hope we shall tend towards unity of custom, and also unity of hearts.

From The Vegetarian Messenger (Manchester), November 1891, from the Annual Report of The Vegetarian Society:


were held on Wednesday, 6th May, at the Albert Hall, Portsmouth The Rev. James Clark presided over the Conference, and papers on the following subjects were contributed :- "The Return to Nature," by Mr. H. S. Salt ; "Practical Suggestions," by Mr. G. Cozens Prior ; "Hints to Housewives and Caterers," by Mr. W. Harrison ; "The Foods of India," by Mr. M. K. Gandhi ; and "Suggestions Touching the Advocacy of Vegetarianism," by Mr. Joseph Knight. A well-attended public dinner was followed by teh public meeting, under the chairmanship of Dr. B. H. Mumby, medical officer of health for the borough of Portsmouth, when a number of addresses were given, and a paper read by Dr. D. B. A. Macbean of Montreal, on "Health Reform and Economy in Household Labour."