Food Security, The Bangla Way

Why did I want to start a restaurant? Well, I love cooking — at least, I love eating! 

— Ruhel Islam, Owner, Gandhi Mahal

Like many other restaurants, the earliest seeds of Gandhi Mahal’s creation grew from a simple childlike curiosity toward the everyday culture of food. Young Ruhel loved watching his mother and grandmother cook. “I was so eager to learn. When I was old enough, they let me make my own omelets,” he recalls. These weren’t your typical greasy spoon fare, but creations cobbled together with the fruits of playful backyard foraging: eggs from the family chickens and various herbs and spices including cilantro and chili peppers. Anything he could find was fair game.

Cooking meat the Bangla way
Cooking meat the Bangla way

Without Cub Foods down the street, meals tended to take on a more creative and exploratory nature. What was in the family compound was what was for dinner, but that’s not to say life felt limited!  “It’s a different way there from how we eat here in the United States,” says Ruhel. For a curious boy growing up in Rural Bangladesh, every day provided opportunities to explore in the kitchen. Instead of stirring plastic pasta on a make-believe stovetop, he had a host of real ingredients right at his fingertips, and playing farmer/chef-in-training was more fun than any bottle rocket or squirt gun. “I would catch fish by throwing rocks in the family pond, then take them home for my mother to fry.”  His fondest hooky-related memory, of course, involved an eight-year-old Ruhel fast asleep in a banana coma, hidden in the rafters of the kitchen shelter. “Everything you needed, you had right there in your backyard — mangoes, bananas and coconuts from the trees, spices, herbs, vegetables…” Food was not a separate concern to remember on the weekly shopping list, but a central aspect of home life — and for kids like Ruhel, a rad way to play!

Pots of ingredients lined up for a traditional Bangla feast
Pots of ingredients lined up for a traditional Bangla feast

Coming to the United States in 1996 as a young man, Ruhel was confronted by a great deal of culture shock. He first entered the workforce in New York City as a busboy, a job that opened for him a mystifying window into the American food system. “I was so used to the Bangla way that this was all so strange to me,” he remembers. How did Americans get their food? What did food mean to them? These were the questions he continued to ponder as he worked toward gaining his United States Citizenship, a process that pushed him to consider the potential in sharing his own cultural wisdom. “In Bangla culture, we say, ‘Even if the whole world doesn’t have food, my village will still go on.'” But what about American “villages?” What do they have in their backyards?

A Look Back as Gandhi Mahal Looks Ahead

If you’ve taken a tour of our basement aquaponics lately or visited one of our numerous neighborhood farm plots, you might be thinking this restaurant must have done some serious scheming years ago. Yet, everything you see today was in fact the product of a slow, organic process of discovery. Well, perhaps slow is not the word! Since opening its doors in 2008, Gandhi Mahal has been eager to jump on opportunities as they’ve come, and thanks to the generous support of the community, those opportunities have led to outcomes that were all but unimaginable in the early days. Let’s take a look back in time to see how we’ve landed where we are today.

2008: Urban farming has been central to Gandhi Mahal’s vision since the very beginning. In its very first year of operation, the restaurant began growing its own produce at the Minnehaha Avenue Community Garden. The same year, Ruhel planted a second garden in his front yard.

2009: In an effort toward becoming a zero-waste operation, Gandhi Mahal began recycling its cooking oilto produce biodiesel. Considering the headache usually involved in grease disposal, it’s another practice that not only takes pressure off the environment, but off the staff as well!

2010: This year marked the restaurant’s first venture into year-round farming (a breeze in balmy Bangladesh; not such a breeze in the sub-zero Minnesota winter). When a neighboring business closed its doors in 2010, Gandhi Mahal expanded into its space and planted its first indoor garden in what is now the Community Room.

Preparing the soil at the HECUA/Gandhi Mahal pilot garden in June 2012

2012: In January 2012, a group of HECUA students visited Bangladesh to learn about sustainable community development. The group, led by professor Julia Nerbonne, met up

with Ruhel in his home village of Sreemangal and conversations began. What could we do back home to put education to action? The plan was to pilot a farm-to-restaurant yard-sharing program. That very summer, ground broke on a plot just blocks away from Gandhi Mahal, and over 2,000 pounds of produce made their way down the street and into the kitchen.

2013: By just the second year of Gandhi Mahal’s yard sharing program, there were already twelve backyard garden plots. Together, they supplied 10,000 pounds of produce to the restaurant!

Tilapia swimming in the basement in April 2015

2014: Last year, Gandhi Mahal finished construction on what is the first closed-loop aquaponics system ever installed in a Minnesota restaurant.

Since the ribbon-cutting this past March, both tilapia and guided tours are swarming in the storage-room-turned-jungle downstairs. Interested in learning more? Tickets are still available for the 2015 Aquaponics Symposiumat the University of Minnesota, where Ruhel and Zach Robinson of Spark-Y will speak on an industry panel discussion.

2015: This summer, don’t forget to keep your eyes up as you walk in the front door. We’re getting honeybees on the roof!