This past winter, chefs Norma Listman and Saqib Keval, invited to me cook in Mexico City, and live in the perfectly appointed apartment perched above their restaurant, Masala y Maiz. I would be the second of their series of Chefs in Residence, a bi-monthly experiment in generosity and thoughtful cooking. For Norma and Saqib a restaurant is not just a business — it is a hub for education, research, and experimentation. Work and life partners, they met while living in Oakland. Saqib was establishing his project, Peoples’ Kitchen Collective, and Norma was cooking at the restaurant Camino. They were instantly bound by a profound conviction that food is more than a capitalist transaction. Rather, food has the unique potential to bring our most complex politics and history to light. Moving to Mexico to open a dream restaurant of their very own, Norma and Saqib were not about to start following the rules.
Located in the residential neighborhood of San Miguel Chapultapec, Masala y Maiz is made up of one narrow corridor whose footprint is 90% occupied by a long cement table. Half the space is open to the elements. The jovial staff wear oversized denim tunics designed by Mexico City designer, Carla Fernandez, with neon embroidered “power to the people” fists on each back. Guests don’t just eat here once — they come once a week (and that’s not including their stop on the way to work to grab a donut from the “donut window”). By the time I arrived, the restaurant had only been up and running for a few months. Their opening was waylaid by the recent earthquake, a disaster that moved Norma and Saqib to shift their focus temporarily to aid work. But by the time I arrived, in the middle of brunch service no less, it felt as if they had been a fixture in the neighborhood for decades. The expectations of a Masala y Maiz chef in residence are delightfully vague – put one dish on the menu, and host an event. In essence, this time is a gift.
As soon as I arrived and I took one husky whiff inside the pantry, my objectives materialized: I wanted to cook with Norma and Saqib, to maybe absorb just one teaspoon of their combined knowledge. Norma, having grown up just one hour north in Texacoco, knows every chile and heirloom corn variety in the seed bank (her father literally works for an NGO maiz seed bank). Saqib, raised in Sacramento by a Pakistanti-American family and trained to cook in France, brings a whole other lexicon to the kitchen – fermented chickpea batters, aromatic spice blends, and tangy pickle chutneys. The magic of their food, and their relationship, is that it blends together seamlessly, Saqib tossing masala into tortillas, and Norma pouring coconut milk into the esquites, like there never was another way to do it. It’s uplifting to cook in their kitchen. Despite the exhausting day-to-day realities of a new restaurant, Saqib dances as he fries chicken, and Norma shuts her eyes in attentive bliss every time she samples a salsa or an experiment in fermentation. She pauses in thought before she declares, “de-lish-us!” Forget Noma — this was the stage I had been waiting for.
With my goal to spend as much time cooking with Norma and Saqib as possible, we decided to host a Sunday asado — a family style BBQ featuring a motherload of vegetables. Eager to showcase the fresh agave blossoms we harvested at Norma’s family home the weekend before, we dipped the green flowers in a masala-spiked batter, and fried them into pakora, alongside romaritos, a seasonal green with a succulent texture. We blitzed homemade mango pickle with lime and fish juice, to bath delicate slices of white-fleshed huachinango fish. Saqib went to town marinating chicken in yogurt and masala, frying it to a golden crisp, while I grilled chilacayotes, my new favorite summer squash. Macolen, the print and design shop next door, created a work of art for the program and menu cards, complete with a collage of a towering agave flower on the cover. Guests came ready to eat, and drink copious amounts of hibiscus mead.
- Tiradito with maracuya and mango pickle leche de tigre
- Masala Fried Chicken
- Green salad with piloncillo chile vinaigrette and avocado
- Grilled Chilacayotes, Broccoli and Spring Onions with papalo-almond salsa verde
- Crispy Chickpea Flour Fried Agave Blossoms + Romaritos with lime aioli
- Grilled numbing nopales
- Fruit, homemade chamoy, seasoned salt, cacahuates Japonais, and lime
*Note: Due to an unfortunate run-in with corrupt government officials, Masala y Maiz is closed until further notice. Please follow them on Instagram, @masalaymaiz, to stay abreast of news of pop-ups and off-site events during the interim.