Listening to Yoshi Yamada and Zeeshan Shah talk about how they came up with Superkhana International’s menu can be overwhelming. The two chefs volley ideas, memories, and sudden realizations back and forth, all flooding out in a passionate torrent.
They have plenty to be excited about: The friends, who previously worked on the Bombay Breakdown pop-up, have just opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Logan Square (3059 W. Diversey Ave.). The new project is inspired by the flavors of India, plus the flavors of just about everywhere else.
Shah spent years at Old Town Social and The Bristol honing his contemporary American cooking skills, but has been fascinated by Indian cuisine since childhood — his father is from India, and Shah grew up going to Devon Avenue to eat and hang out with his dad’s friends.
“Once I grew up and went to culinary school, I kept going back to homestyle cooking,” Shah says.
Like Shah, Yamada cut his teeth at non-Indian restaurants like Lula Café and Blackbird, but he has a deep love of the cuisine, going back to when he studied and cooked in Mumbai on a Fulbright for 18 months. His interest was piqued when he first visited India at 19 and ate chicken masala in a tiny seven-seat shop.
“I came back to the US looking for this food, and of course it turns out there are 10,000 versions of chicken masala,” Yamada says, laughing.
Superkhana International (whose name plays on the word khana, which means “food” in Hindi and Urdu) stems from a moment of serendipity. Both Yamada and Shah were thinking of opening an Indian-inspired restaurant; a mutual friend, knowing about their shared aspirations, introduced them to one another. Rather than competing, they went into business together. After five years of pop-up dinners and farmer’s markets, Superkhana International was born, thanks in part to support from Lula Café and Marisol chef Jason Hammel, whom Shah describes as their “producer.”
So far, Superkhana International’s most popular dish is the butter chicken calzone. Yamada and Shah stuff a calzone with classic butter chicken, bake it, and then brush it with ghee and maldon salt.
“The way that we cook is that we look for connections between ingredients, cultures and techniques. When we find them, we work with them in a sort of cross-cultural conversation,” Yamada says. “[This dish] has a very simple premise, which is that butter chicken is great with bread.”
Another example of their process is a dish from their pop-up: basmati rice congee made with coconut water and topped with braised brisket, coconut milk, and turmeric. The dish was inspired by an epiphany Shah experienced during another meal: Once, while eating dim sum, he ordered congee and dipped a short rib into it.
As Yamada explains, the dish crosses cultures — congee is a staple in many Asian cuisines, the beef and coconut is inspired by dishes from Kerala, and both are paired with a French-style pickle and northern Indian fried shallots. Together, the far-flung ingredients make for a rich, satisfying combination.
“A friend described it as a hug for your heart,” Shah says.
But Yamada and Shah say that no matter how widely their creativity roves, Superkhana International will always center the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent.
“We love cooking Indian food,” Yamada says. “We are culinary wanderers by nature, but we want to root what we do in a celebration of Indian cooking, because it’s such a huge tradition.”