Rishi Manoj Kumar (Bar Sotano) and Zubair Mohajir (Wazwan) believe both Indian and Mexican cuisines share the love of cumin, cilantro, and flatbread — whether it’s a tortilla or paratha. Now, they are highlighting these intersections through an upcoming pop-up where they’ll create new dishes like momos stuffed with goat birria and butter chicken taquitos. The two chefs’ collaboration will be a special five-course menu celebrating both cultures on June 15 at Bar Sotano.
The menu will meld cultures with dishes like a churro inspired by jalebi, the sticky and twisted bright-orange fried Indian dessert. There’s also a duck dish with dual inspirations. Mohajir describes it as a cross between a South Indian duck curry and duck carnitas.
The drinks will also by cross cultural, as Bar Sotano’s beverage experts Lanie Bayless and Juliana Arquilla will use some of Mohajir’s fermentation experiments as key ingredients in special cocktail, including drinks made with saffron infusions and mezcal. Chicago’s Azadi Brewing, which makes subcontinental-inspired beers out of Pilot Project Brewing in Logan Square, will also supply drinks.
The chefs aim to use the collaboration as an opportunity to highlight the similarities and differences in their backgrounds. Kumar’s family is Gujarati but ended up in Singapore where he grew up. He left Singapore in 2014 to intern with celebrity chef Rick Bayless. He’s since moved up through the ranks, furthering his understanding of Mexican food while at Bayless’ River North gastropub, Bar Sotano. He’s currently Bayless’ chef de cuisine.
Mohajir’s family is South Indian. He’s a Chicago-area native with plans to open his own restaurant, Aman, this summer at 1934 W. Chicago Avenue. Aman will be a full-service restaurant with composed dishes — a shift from his work at Wazwan, an Indian-American to-go operation with halal spins on burgers and fried chicken. He’s also spent time at Gaggan, a Bangkok restaurant known as one of the world’s premier Indian restaurants.
The two met only recently as Mohajir reached out to Kumar via social media, appreciative that a fellow South Asian chef had found success. They plan to roll out their spins on familiar South Asian (Not just Indian; momos are primarily Nepalese) and Mexican dishes, hoping the pop-up shows a deep appreciation of the cultures instead of recklessly appropriating them. That’s something that Bayless himself has been accused of doing in his previous restaurants. Kumar and Mohajir say they have put careful thought into the menu and that they wouldn’t just cover a dish in mole and call it a day. “That’s not how you do it,” Kumar says. “You have to have an understanding, you have to rhythm.”
From their perspective, Mexican and Indian food do well to complement each other. They’re not planning to present items as elevated versions or replacements for classic dishes. Instead, they’ve taken their cues from renowned Mexico City restaurant Masala y Maiz, a restaurant Kumar and Bayless visited in 2019. Chefs Norma Listman and Saqib Keval have challenged perceptions surrounding food by combining cuisines since 2017. One of the restaurant’s dishes is reminiscent of an Indian uttapam made with fermented rice and garbanzos. Kumar says he and Bayless hoped to host Listman and Keval for a pop-up in Chicago before the pandemic.
Kumar and Mohajir are also well aware that there’s a long historical precedent for combining Northern Indian and Mexican cuisines. There’s evidence of these dishes that dates back to the early 1900s in California. In recent memory, one of the signature dishes of this tradition is the roti quesadilla, in which the Rasul family swapped out the tortilla for the Indian flatbread. Locally, chef Amar Mansuria has also delved into the genre through the dinners he makes as a private chef, a side-gig he’s done when he’s not working at his Pilsen Mexican restaurant Casa Indigo. Mansuria says his No. 1 request is Mexican pizza, which evokes some memories of Taco Bell within the South Asian community.
Kumar hopes to build upon not only past traditions but his own experience, as well. Pre-pandemic, he and Bayless had plans to invite chefs to host pop-ups at Bar Sotano. They intended to call it the “Unsung Heroes” series, angling to spotlight underappreciated chefs. It was also a way to give fresh blood a stage to showcase their creativity. For Kumar, this is a way to banish apathy and to push Chicago chefs into trying something new: “We just can’t get by with fancy butter chicken in a pocket anymore,” Kumar says.
Zubair Mohajir and Rishi Manoj Kumar’s pop-up, June 15 at Bar Sotano in River North, tickets $95, reservations via Resy.
Update: Tickets are sold out.