July 16, 2018 – Food & Wine
In June of 2016, while picking out ingredients for a dinner in Mexico City, chefs Norma Listman and Saqib Keval had a revelation.
As they wandered the aisles of the Mercado San Juan, Listman, who grew up in the historic town of Texcoco just outside Mexico City, talked through family recipes with ingredients like tamarind and corn, staples of Mexican cooking. Keval, born and raised in California to a family with roots in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat by way of Kenya and Ethiopia, rattled off his own family’s uses for the same ingredients. “It would be so similar but one degree off,” he recalls, “like two sides of the same dish.”
Though Listman and Keval had cooked together many times before back in the Bay Area, where both lived, they had never developed an entire menu together. “That was an aha moment,” Listman says. That dinner became the first in a series of pop-ups that they called Masala y Maíz.
Neither Listman nor Keval imagined that project, which was as much about research as it was about cooking, would become a restaurant. In the first place, Masala y Maíz was too intimate to put before a broad audience; it was a product not just of their relationship as cooks and as a couple, but also of their entire family histories. Keval was still running the People’s Kitchen Collective, the food, art, and activism project he started nearly a decade earlier in Oakland, California. Listman had only recently moved back to Mexico to pursue deep research on corn. Then in June 2017, after a year of Masala y Maíz dinners, they were invited to take over a small restaurant called Café Zena in the leafy neighborhood of San Miguel Chapultepec. Four crazed months later, they opened for service.
Originally slated to open the day after the September 19 earthquake that brought down dozens of buildings in Mexico City and killed more than 300 people in the surrounding region, Masala y Maíz spent its first month in existence as a community kitchen, preparing 800 hot meals a day to distribute among shelters—not the soft opening they’d planned, but one that cemented their place in their new community. Since then, Masala y Maíz has become an integral part not only of its neighborhood—serving coffee, homemade doughnuts, and a warming corn-based drink called atole through a kitchen window every morning—but also of the community of producers they work with so closely.
The restaurant they’ve created is a neighborhood spot, an artists’ residency, and a research kitchen, where Keval and Listman explore the deep historical connections among Mexico, India, and East Africa. On the back of the menu, a series of hashtags preempts some of the questions they get most often, among them “#nosomosfusion”—we’re not fusion.
Instead, Listman and Keval describe their food as a product of mestizaje, a Spanish term that encompasses the myriad cultural transfusions that followed the colonial invasion of the Americas. Mestizaje brought chiles to Asia, tomatoes to Europe, and corn to the world. To Mexico, it brought mangoes and spices from India, tamarind and hibiscus from North Africa, domesticated livestock from Europe, and limes from Southeast Asia. “In colonized countries, ‘mestizaje’ still has a negative connotation,” says Listman. “We’re bringing to light that it’s not only a bad thing.” Keval adds, “The difference is that colonial mestizaje was forced. We’re talking about agency and self-determination.”
In Listman and Keval’s kitchen, epazote, a fragrant herb native to the Americas and grown on farms in the city’s urban periphery, is lightly battered and fried to make pakoras, a staple street snack across India. Gulf prawns stuffed with Ethiopian berbere are served over slices of jicama and a Yucatán-style cabbage escabèche scented with rosewater. Pears from Listman’s mother’s garden in Texcoco become a fiery pickle, while lamb from a nearby ranch is rubbed with both a red adobo and a masala rich with the warm spices of the Indian subcontinent. “If our grandmothers were roommates,” Keval says, “this is what their food would taste like.”
By celebrating the mestizaje that emerged in markets and kitchens, where communities and ingredients met and mixed beyond—and often in defiance of—the European gaze, the chefs aim, as they put it, to “decolonize the palate.”
But that goal hasn’t always gone smoothly. In April, as the restaurant hit its stride, city officials appeared to “suspend services” with neither warning nor explanation. “We’re community people,” Listman says, so, rather than pay the expected bribe to speed the process of reopening, they turned to their community of restaurants and restaurant owners.
Listman and Keval started a GoFundMe to pay staff salaries during the closure and launched a series of events they call “Masala y Maíz in Exile.” They’ve sold doughnuts at the all-day café Cicatriz and Keval’s family’s chai recipe at the coffee shop Buna; they’ve held cooking classes at the food-focused event space Sobremesa, owned by Mónica Patiño; and they’ve hosted meals across the city at places like Lalo!, Casa Teo (Enrique Olvera’s newly opened bed-and-breakfast and culinary workshop), and the popular natural wine spot Loup Bar.
As of press time, the restaurant remains closed—stuck, for the time being, in the gears of Mexico’s bureaucratic machinery. But its presence in the city’s ever-changing food scene remains palpable—not just as a culinary force to be reckoned with, but also as a political one.
“Masala y Maíz,” Keval says, “is a food project, it’s an art practice, but it’s also political.” It’s an invitation to be part of the stories that shaped these two families, stories of worlds that met through force but told in a language—and a cuisine—all their own. It’s now also a story of resistance. “It won’t be for everybody,” Keval and Listman say. But then, no family is.”