For the past three years, Bar Sotano’s chef, Rishi Minoj Kumar, has remained obsessed with the Mexican and Indian flavors of Masala y Maiz, a popular restaurant in Mexico City. Kumar, who is of Indian descent, and his boss, Rick Bayless, dined at the restaurant in 2019 and Kumar has moves to lure owners Norma Listman and Saqib Keval to Chicago. He finally achieved 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 of Indian descent via Kenya, blended two culinary traditions that they say have not always been treated with the respect they deserve outside of these respected countries. These long-held perceptions that food is cheap or not on par with European cuisine provide a common thread, as well as any overlapping ingredients. At Masala y Maiz, the two chefs celebrate “mestizaje”, a word that has no direct equivalent in English. Rather than the oft-overused term “fusion,” which describes what happens when ingredients are hastily mixed together, for Listman and Keval, miscegenation is “an organic blending of cultures over generations, often in response to the colonization and displacement. One example is their suadero samosas, where traditional fried samosa shells are filled with simmering beef.
Listman and Keval will cook at Bar Sotano twice. Dinner on Tuesday, September 13 will be by reservation only and will feature a four-course collaborative menu. Dishes that showcase both teams’ cooking philosophies will include tamales with dhokla (a fermented savory cake made from rice and chickpeas), as well as duck masala barbacoa and seafood tartare wrapped in paan .
On Wednesday, September 14, Masala y Maiz will offer some of its classic dishes, like samosas, à la carte. Keval doesn’t say if they’ll bring any ingredients with them: “You’ll know when you get there,” he laughs.
Masala y Maiz opened in 2017 and restaurants that combine Mexican and South Asian styles, except for a few tacos, are rare, but there is a history of Punjabi and Mexican families who can mix ingredients from the same way, especially in California. A rush of immigration from the Indian state of Punjab in the late 1800s and early 1900s brought many men to the West Coast to work on the railways. They settled in America and married Hispanic women (Mexico was established in 1810). It reminds Kumar, who grew up in Singapore, of the fusion of Chinese and Muslim cuisine back home.
Listman and Keval don’t claim to be 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 seek authenticity. She knows that some enclaves expect traditional cuisine and remain protective of their cultures, worried about America’s history of eradicating non-European cultures. Reaction is a survival mechanism, says Keval. He succinctly calls white supremacy and capitalism the culprits. And that’s what the two hope to set apart from their restaurant because not all appropriation is necessarily bad: there’s a certain level of execution in combining culinary traditions wisely instead of brutally breaking cultures, which erases the historical context of specific dishes. In particular, this mostly happens when white chefs fuse European and Asian dishes, Keval says.
So why would Listman and Keval travel to Chicago to appear at a restaurant run by Bayless, a chef who has come under fire (enough 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 fight about the white man cooking and researching Mexican food,” she says. “And he completely disarmed me with his respect, his research, his knowledge and his dedication to my country’s food.”
Listman places Bayless and writer Diana Kennedy, who died in July, as two white people in the mainstream who worked hard to properly present Mexican culture. Listman says Bayless and his wife Deann have formed a relationship that shows how much they appreciate Mexican culture and they haven’t been shy about asking tough questions. Keval says he is an ally, a “white male leader who has used his privilege and access to open and open doors for many leaders of color.”
“I was looking to argue, but it wasn’t that conversation at all,” Keval says.
This is not the first time that Bar Sotano has combined Indian and Mexican flavors. Kumar hosted a pop-up with chef Wazwan Zubair Mohajir in June 2021.
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.