At Gandhi Mahal, a Basement Garden Feeds a Village
Ruhel Islam shows off his curry plant that flourishes in front of Gandhi Mahal, a restaurant that's all about community.
Upstairs at Minneapolis restaurant Gandhi Mahal, late diners help themselves to the last call for the luncheon buffet of traditional Indian fare.
Downstairs, the ingredients for future meals are swimming around in a tank or growing in beds of lava rocks and water. Ruhel Islam has set up what he believes is the first restaurant in the U.S. to grow its food in a basement aquaponic garden. The tilapia’s waste supplies the nutrients needed for the plants, like spinach and lettuce, to grow in water—not soil—under artificial lighting. Weather permitting, the planters in front of the restaurant sport spices, such as a curry leaf plant.
The current crop is ready to be rotated out, but the fish are still swimming strong. When a recipe calls for tilapia, one of the cooks treks downstairs to catch it in a net.
Ruhel Islam prepares to catch the tilapia swimming in his restaurant basement 'Bangladesh style.'
“I catch them Bangladesh style,” Islam says, grinning. I ask for a demonstration and he obliges, rolling up his sleeve and calling to a nearby fish by gently splashing the water. When a pale, translucent fish ventures over, Islam quickly reaches down and attempts to snatch it out of the water. But, alas, the bug-eyed fish is quicker than the hand. Islam takes off his trendy glasses, and wipes off the water spots; I wipe off my camera lens.
After a couple more false starts, Islam resorts to the Minnesotan way, the net. He soothes the fish by running his fingers along the sides of its head, before it flip-flops back into the water. The fish darts away to live another day outside a chaffing dish.
Spark-Y, a nonprofit organization that creates hydro-agriculture systems as a teaching tool for youth, helped create Gandhi Mahal’s basement garden. Islam is also looking into the viability of a rooftop garden.
The concept of growing your own food is thousands of decades old, and yet in the trendy restaurant scene it’s become sustainable. Whether it’s farmers markets, rooftop gardens, or knowing the pedigree of your beef and chickens, slow food methods are becoming mainstream ways for food purveyors to show diners they care about their health.
“My culture is a food culture,” Islam says about his Indian heritage. “We’re used to growing year-round.”
While that may have been the case in his native Bangladesh, year-round, outdoor gardens aren’t the norm for Minnesota. To supplement what he grows in his restaurant’s basement, Islam has partnered with a community garden and visits the local farmers market twice a week when available.
The bond between communities and food is deeply rooted in his past. When Islam was 8, Bangladesh experienced a devastating famine caused by the massive flooding from a nearby major river. His village banded together and used the high water to their advantage by growing food aquaponically.
To help supply his Gandhi Mahal restaurant, owner Ruhel Islam visits local farmers markets.
“Together we had food and shelter and could help the other villages,” he says. The power of everyone contributing allowed his village to survive while people in neighboring villages were starving to death.
“Community is what we’re trying to do here,” he says of his restaurant on 27th Avenue in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis. No mystery where the name of the restaurant comes from. The Gandhi connection, he points out, is to remind people of the man who taught peace through strength of character. “Our mission is to provide quality, healthy food that promotes a peaceful mind and experience in a soothing environment,” the restaurant’s website states.
While the food is fresh, it’s also diverse in order to honor everyone’s special diet. There’s vegan options, dairy-free dishes, Halal meat, all “to bring people together,” he says. One thing he will never call food is “organic.” He sees that term as creating a caste system for dividing food. The perception is that organic food is for rich people.
“We should all have one food,” he says, and that food should be fresh. “Food is wealth; food is medicine,” he explains and everyone should have equal access to healthy options.
In 2008, Islam and his family bought the restaurant for $1, he says. They combined efforts—for instance, his sister-in-law incorporated her wedding shawls into the décor—and Islam helped cook. “I got to play with the spices,” he says, rubbing his hands together.
A community center dining room that is free for neighborhood gatherings takes up one wing of the 5,000-square-foot space, and a small cubbyhole in the second dining room from the front door hosts a children’s area with toys and a play kitchen. The table next to it is the one most in demand, he says, because parents can dine and watch their children at the same time.
In line with the classic movie quote, “Build it and they will come,” once the Islams started cooking, the guests found them. One elderly woman from the neighborhood told Islam she found him by smell. “She said something in my food talks to others; that touched my heart,” he says.
A chart depicting Gandhi Mahal's dedication to sustainablilty is posted prominently in the restaurant for education and conversation.
It didn’t take long for the neighborhood to embrace Gandhi Mahal, “and now Hollywood found us,” he says. Just recently he had a visit from Guy Fieri, the host of Food Network show, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” Islam fed him chicken tikka masala and dal. When Fieri tasted the dal lentils, Islam says, he nodded his head in recognition, comparing it to Mexican beans. Islam corrected him: “I said, please don’t say that. Dal is my miracle.” He assured me he was just kidding around with Fieri, aware of what will make good television. When the episode will air hasn’t been announced as yet, he adds.
Sourcing as many ingredients as possible in-house or through partnerships with farmers and interfaith gardeners lives up to Islam’s mission statement to create peace in relationships and an environment free of stress.
He also leads tours back to his country in order to connect East and West. “We’re a global village,” he emphasizes. “We’re all united.” And if you want to mull over how to make the world a better place, he’s got the space for it.