This is not the dank clamminess of an ordinary basement. The underground space at Gandhi Mahal Indian restaurant is warm and humid and smells of soil and and greenhouse growth.
Flying insects flit around in the air and alight on the stalks and stems of the many plants growing beneath the lights: chard, curry leaves, chile peppers. In the center of it all a hundred Tilapia pucker expectantly in our direction -- it's feeding time, and just before the buffet lunch gets rolled out in the upstairs dining room, Ruhel Islam tosses them some food. They jump and splash happily in hopes of scoring a pellet.
Gandhi Mahal is most primarily known for excellent Indian cuisine. They constantly make "Best Of" lists for their full-spice Northern Indian, Bangladeshi menu, with many varieties of tender naan bread, tandoori preparations, curries, and extensive vegetarian offerings. And while this is all well and good, it's almost like a sleight-of-hand magic trick. Create a delicious diversion over here, while poof! Over there something else entirely is taking place.
What, exactly? Just trying to change the world. No big deal.
For starters, you needn't look further than the name: The mission of the place is dedicated to the principles that Mohandas Gandhi practiced during his lifetime: peace, justice for all, environmental responsibility, community building, and ethical economics, to name a few.
But the message is subtle and respectful, almost stealthily communicated between servings of raitias and daubs of chutney.
It starts with that extensive menu: both vegetarian and non, spicy and mild, always open to dietary restrictions, beer and wine, tea, coffee, lassi, buffet, and a la carte. Live music all weekend. Almost anything that they can get away with serving in order to be as inclusive as possible.
There's a sprawling community room open to any nonprofit that wishes to use it, and a colorful little corner filled with trinkets and toys for kids to hang around and stay awhile while parents do the same. They've put honeybees on the rooftop and they've planted urban gardens around the neighborhood. They convert their cooking oil into biosdiesel and they've led student groups to Bangladesh. All little things that add up to a greater whole of responsible civic duty as true community partners. Little things that, if each and every one of us took up just one of them, we'd be living in a much different world, probably.
The closed-loop aquaponics farm in the basement is another pebble in that deep bucket. When he first emigrated to the U.S., Islam said he was confused about the American system of getting food. He was a busboy in a New York restaurant and he wanted to know: Where was all this food coming from? Where were the farmers? Where was the land? In Bangladesh, everybody was a farmer, a hunter, and a gatherer. What you could find outside was what you ate that night. The gaping hole between farm and table in the U.S. confused and confounded him.
But just because he's a dreamer does not mean he's a dummy. Our subzero, antithetical growing condition temps are not lost on him. But he refuses to think of that, or much of anything, as an obstacle. "Always take the positive way," he says. We can grow food where we are, rather than always grabbing at the coasts -- and creating a giant carbon footprint in the process -- for their verdant bounties. Though it takes some time and tenacity.
The downstairs system, though it looks complicated, actually requires very little time and attention, insists Kedrik Lund, an ecosystems farmer who assists Islam with the project. There's an aerator pump that keeps the tank oxygenated; the fish poop and that water gets filtered into the clay beds where the plants grow. The plants take the nutrients out of the water, and the now clean water flows back into the tank.
The tilapia take at least a year, maybe longer, to grow to full maturity to be ready for harvest, and so it is the fertilizer that they provide to the plants that's most beneficial in terms of a food source at this point.
Eventually, they hope to build a full greenhouse system on the roof, keeping the fish in the basement, with strong pumps flowing water and nutrients all the way up. Lund is planning to begin breeding more tilapia soon when he can procure some larger tanks to do so. They can double the number of fish they have now with just one female and two males.
They're about a year into the project, and they've found which plants like the environment, and which don't, and the kitchen finds it a boon to run down and grab a bit of this and a bit of that. And while the farm is far away from providing a large percentage of the kitchen product, Islam says the benefits of having it are immeasurable.
"School kids come and they learn about it. They go home and tell their parents and have their parents come and see, and then they go upstairs and the whole family is having dinner. They come back again and again. How do you measure that?" And it happens to be the only farm of its kind inside of a restaurant in the state.
They've got students and neighbors and all sorts of interested parties flowing in and out of the restaurant all the time to see the farm, but also to share in ideas, break some of that naan, and participate in a give-and-take.
"It's when you get everybody together participating that greatness happens," says one of those students who stopped by to hit the buffet and eat lunch with us. I didn't catch his name, because soon enough, he was off to the basement.
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