Google “Southeast Asian food in Argentina” and Cantina Sunae is the top hit. Since 2015, the Buenos Aires restaurant by US-born, Philippines-raised chef Christina Sunae has been serving dishes like burnt coconut curry ribs, siu mai with Sichuan jalapeño sauce, and a version of halo-halo that uses fruit granitas. Not surprisingly, she’s been credited for putting Filipino cuisine on the Argentine map.
This March, Christina finally came full circle by opening her first restaurant in the Philippines, Sunae Asian Cantina at Bonifacio Global City (BGC). She describes her menu as “Southeast Asian cuisine with Latin American twists” and “Filipino classics with a twist”.
Tell us about your heritage.
I was born in South Carolina in the US. [My father is American], my biological mother is Korean and the mother who raised me is a Filipina. I spent my early childhood in Okinawa, Japan, but my formative years were spent in Angeles City, Pampanga. Our culture at home was Filipino as my mom cooked us her food.
Where and how did you learn how to cook?
When there was something to celebrate, my mom would make lumpiang prito, lumpia sariwa, pancit bihon and inihaw na baboy. When I was 10 years old, my main job was to roll the lumpia — and to roll them tight!
How did you end up in Buenos Aires?
[After years of working in New York] I arrived in Buenos Aires in 2005 with only a backpack and a rice cooker. I wanted to learn another language and immerse myself in another culture. I met the father of my children, and a few years later, in 2009, we opened my first restaurant behind closed doors, at our house. Cocina Sunae was born out of my love for cooking and the flavors of my childhood. After almost seven years, we opened Sunae Asian Cantina in the Palermo neighborhood, also known by locals as Cantina Sunae.
Is the Manila restaurant anything like your first two restaurants in Buenos Aires?
Apu Nena is a 25-seater spot that has a totally different concept… but what [Apu Nena and Sunae Asian Cantina in Buenos Aires and BGC] have in common is their foundations in the Filipino food traditions of my childhood.
Sunae Asian Cantina’s menu, says Christina, is similar to the one in its original Argentine location — with a few more seafood options. “We tap on the natural bounty of the Philippines and tailor selections to the local palate.”
- Mejillones y coco (Manila exclusive): “Mussels, coconut and sigarilyas… I’m in love with the sigarilyas and special bagoong in this dish.”
- Burnt coconut curry: “The technique to creating this dish — burning coconuts until they’re black — was taught to me by a friend from Mindanao.”
- Natilla de coco: “Coconut cream, fresh fruit, coconut cookies, chili and strawberry powder. Delicious.”