For the last three years, Bar Sotano chef Rishi Minoj Kumar has remained fixated with the Mexican-meets-Indian flavors of Masala y Maiz, an acclaimed restaurant in Mexico City. Kumar, who is of Indian descent, and his boss, Rick Bayless, dined at the restaurant in 2019 and Kumar has led overtures to lure owners Norma Listman and Saqib Keval to Chicago. He’s finally accomplished his goal as the duo will arrive next month in Chicago for a one-of-a-kind pop-up at the River North bar.
Listman, who is Mexican, and Keval, an American with Indian roots via Kenya, have blended two culinary traditions which they maintain haven’t always been treated with the proper respect outside of those respected countries. Those long-standing perceptions, that the food is cheap or isn’t on the same level as European cuisine, provide a common link, along with any ingredient overlaps. At Masala y Maiz, the two chefs celebrate “mestizaje,” a word that doesn’t have a direct English counterpart. Rather than the often-overused “fusion” term, which describes what happens when ingredients are hastily thrown together, for Listman and Keval, mestizaje is “an organic blending of cultures over generations often in response to colonization and displacement.” Their samosas de suadero, where traditional fried samosa shells are filled with slow-cooked beef, provide an example.
Listman and Keval will cook at Bar Sotano on two dates. Dinner on Tuesday, September 13, will be reservation only and feature a collaborative four-course menu. Dishes that showcase both teams cooking philosophies will include tamales with dhokla (a fermented savory cake made of rice and chickpeas), as well as masala duck barbacoa and paan-wrapped seafood tartare.
On Wednesday, September 14, Masala y Maiz will offer some of their classic dishes, like the samosas, a la carte. Keval is tight-lipped on whether they’ll bring any ingredients with them: “You’’ll find out when you’re there,” he says, laughing.
Masala y Maiz opened in 2017 and restaurants that combine Mexican and South Asian styles, save a few taco spots, are a rarity, but there is a history of Punjabi and Mexican families who may blend ingredients in a similar fashion, particularly in California. An immigration rush from the Indian state of Punjab in the late 1800s and early 1900s landed many men on the west coast to work on railroads. They settled in America and married Hispanic women (Mexico was established in 1810). This reminds Kumar, who grew up in Singapore, of how Chinese and Muslim food merged back home.
Listman and Keval don’t claim they’re the first to combine Indian and Mexican flavors, and they know their food isn’t for everyone. It’s impossible to appease all diners, and Listman says some will be searching for authenticity. She knows some enclaves expect traditional cooking and remain protective of their cultures, worried about America’s history of eradicating non-European cultures. The reaction is a survival mechanism, Keval says. He succinctly labels white supremacy and capitalism as culprits. And that’s what the two hope distinguishes their restaurant as all appropriation isn’t necessarily bad: There’s a certain level of execution in thoughtfully combining culinary traditions instead of bluntly smashing cultures together which erases the historical context of specific dishes. Particularly, this happens mostly when white chefs fuse European and Asian dishes, Keval says.
So why would Listman and Keval journey to Chicago to pop up at a restaurant run by Bayless, a chef that’s caught flak (fairly or not) for appropriating Mexican culture? Years ago, when Bayless first dined at Masala y Maiz, Listman says she bristled when she saw the name on the reservation.
“I was ready to put my gloves on and have a fight about the white man cooking and researching Mexican food,” she says. “And he completely disarmed me with his respect, research, knowledge, and dedication to the food of my country.”
Listman places Bayless, and writer Diana Kennedy, who died in July, as two white people in the mainstream who have worked hard to properly showcase Mexican culture. Listman says Bayless and wife Deann have built relationships demonstrating how they value Mexican culture and they haven’t shied away from hard questions. Keval says is an ally, a “white, male chef that has used his privilege and access to lift up and open doors for many chefs of color.”
“I was looking to argue, but it was not that conversation at all,” Keval says.
Tickets for the pop-up are on sale now.
Masala y Maiz pop-up at Bar Sotano, 443 N. Clark Street, Tuesday, September 13, reservations via Resy; Wednesday, September 14 for walk-ins.