Gandhi simplified the highly complicated and difficult art of cooking. He first tried his hand at cooking at the age of eighteen, when he was in England. He was a strict vegetarian. Vegetarianism was then comparatively a new trend in England. He was generally served with bread, butter and jam and boiled vegetables. Everything tasted bland to Gandhi who was used to tasty spicy Indian dishes prepared by his mother. After taking meals in a vegetarian restaurant for some months, he decided to live thriftily. He hired a room, and a stove and cooked his breakfast and dinner himself. He took scarcely more than 20 minutes to cook the food about 12 annas a day.
After his return to India as an enrolled barrister, he hired a small flat in Bombay and engaged a Brahmin cook. He did half the cooking and taught the cook some English vegetarian dishes. He was rather particular about orderliness and cleanliness especially in the kitchen, and taught the cook to wash his clothes and to bathe regularly.
A book called Return to Nature by Salt convinced Gandhi that one should not eat to please the palate but to keep the body fit. Mahadev Bhai once asked Gandhi, "Bapuji, did you have a cook before you joined the Phoenix Settlement?" Gandhi replied: " No, I got rid of him earlier. We had a fine cook but he said that he won't be able to cook without spices and condiments. Immediately, I granted him leave and did not appoint a cook anymore." This incident took place when Gandhi was nearly thirty five years old.
Hired cooks were never employed in his ashrams in South Africa or India. Gandhi believed that it was sheer waste of time and labour to cook various dishes for one meal. He was not prepared to cater to the differing tastes of the different members of the ashram. He prescribed a simple menu for all. The meals were cooked in a common kitchen. In his ashram, rice with gruel, bread, raw salad, boiled vegetables without spices, fruits and milk or curd were served. Sweets and milk preparations were substituted by fresh gur and honey. Gandhi began to make experiments, with diet which remained a lifetime hobby with him. Some of the experiments needed no cooking and some landed him in trouble. He was a fruitarian for five years. Once for four months he lived on germinated seeds and uncooked food and developed dysentery.
Some old examples of Gandhi's menu were fresh neem leaf chutney, bitter as quinine, mixture of fresh nutritive oil-cake from an oil-pres adjoining the ashram and curd, sweet sherbat (juice) made of tamarind and gur, boiled and mashed soyabeans served without any seasoning, salad made out of any fresh edible green leaves, a sort of pudding made from finely powdered baked chapattis, porridge of coarsely ground wheat and whennatan coffee made from baked wheat powder. He could prepare cake rice, dal, vegetable soup, salads, marmalade both of oranges and orange skins, bread without using yeast or baking powder, chapattis and fine Khakras. He introduced loaf-making and biscuit-making in the ashram kitchen. A special type of oven was used in Sevagram for cooking rice for hundreds of persons, for making bread and boiling vegetables at a low cost. One of Bapu's associate once remarked: "Lately it was reported that grass had plenty of vitamins. Fortunately the discovery was not made when Gandhiji was in the ashram, for then he would have decided to wind up the kitchen and ask us graze on the lawn."
Gandhi once visited a model residential school. He did not like the kitchen arrangements there and told the teachers: "You will make your institution ideal if, besides giving them a literary education, you make finished cooks and sweepers of them."