What makes a good cook, and why are the best ones said to come from Pampanga?
I think that a good cook knows how to flavor, or season according to taste, adding a bit more salt, or more lime perhaps, and probably just a smidgen of something proprietary or instinctive to make food taste great. I really have no sound idea why peerless cooks come from Pampanga, but when a Kapampangan cooks for me, I know it will be one of my best meals. These kitchen mavens know how to strike the equilibrium between sweet and sour, spicy and salty—ultimately defining the line between the sapidly palatable and the exquisitely delightful.
In between tango lessons and after a long trip to four countries in South America, the Pinoy traveler in me will always look for Asian food anywhere it is in the world. How fortunate, therefore, to have a Kapampangan in the land of delectable beef and Patagonian lamb—a friend, Christina Sunae.
In Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, the adventure of dining awaits in unlikely places, referred to by porteños (local “people from the port”) as “restaurantes a puertas cerradas,” or restaurants hidden within closed doors.
Among these secret places is Cocina Sunae, a name that has become very popular and considered one of the best in ethnic cuisines of the puertas cerradas that open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Cocina Sunae is right in the living/dining room of the home that Christina Sunae shares with her husband Franco, an Argentine, and children Dante, 7, and Zoe, seven months old.
But first, one has to pass through a huge, imposing and unmarked green gate that tends to make the first-timer believe that she has lost her way. The doorbell is rung before Franco opens and only after the guests make known their identities.
Security is utmost concern of every porteño. One can only come in upon reservation; one hears about the place by word of mouth and from good reviews.
Cocina Sunae serves Southeast Asian cuisine, particularly Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese, served family-style or as a four-course individual meal from the owner’s home kitchen. It is listed with superlative reviews in Time Out Buenos Aires, a travel magazine that recommends things to do and where to eat in the city.
“The gastronomy we prepare in Cocina Sunae comes from recipes of typical food cooked every day in homes, on streets and in the markets of Southeast Asia,” says Christina. She proudly declares that all her Filipino dishes are what she learned from her mother and grandmother while growing up in Pampanga.
No formal training
The food connoisseur has a fascinating personality with a gentle demeanor, and her story slowly unfolds as the evening comfortably wears on. Intriguingly enough, the woman wasn’t born a Filipino. And she did not have formal training as a chef.
When asked where she is from, Christina lights up and winsomely explains that she was “made” in Korea, born in America, grew up in Angeles City in Pampanga, studied in South Carolina, and went on to attend New York University.
Quite simply she emphasizes that she is the daughter of two women, her biological Korean mother and her real mother, a Filipino, who brought her up in Pampanga and from whom she inherited her cooking skills.
Her father, an American, had a job that took the family all over Southeast Asia and this gave her the opportunity to be exposed to various Asian cuisines. Most unforgettable for her, however, were her growing-up years in the Philippines with her Filipino family, planning and cooking the daily menu with her mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins, and gathering at the dining table to savor their finished concoctions.
Every morning was a literal adventure, as she went to the neighborhood market in Angeles City with them to buy their daily ingredients: fruits, vegetables and meats like pork (her favorite), chicken and fresh, live seafood.
She was always most comfortable when close to the kitchen, even as she ventured on her own. Her first jobs were cleaning tables in South Carolina, and later, bartending in New York, where she also finished her marketing course.
She worked in a prestigious Thai restaurant, Kin Khao, where she learned the basics of Thai cooking. In 2005, at age 30, she decided to move to Buenos Aires to learn Spanish and imbibe another culture to add to her life experiences. She ended up staying for love of her husband, and for her husband’s love for her food. She says it best in Spanish, “Me quedo en Buenos Aires por el amor de mi vida…¡ Y su amor por mi comida!”
In 2009, she opened Cucina Sunae.
The four-course menu changes every week, and invariably includes soup, an appetizer, a choice of two main courses, and the dessert.
I first went there last year. On the night I went back this year—with Ambassador Rey Carandang and my daughter Gabbi—Christina served an extra Filipino dish and we both had main course choices presented family-style.
The soup was Bulanglang, vegetable stew with prawn flavored with a mixture of guava and passion fruit to create the sour essence in the broth.
Appetizer was Lumpia, spring roll of shrimp and vegetable with garlic shallots served with sweet chilly sauce; and salad was Yung Gung (Thai), hot and sour shrimp with lemongrass, mint, cilantro, cucumber, tomatoes and onions.
The main courses were Bun Thit Noong (Vietnam), grilled pork marinated in lemongrass served with nuoc mam sauce; and Massaman Curry (Thai), chicken in coconut milk, potatoes, onion, cardamom, tamarind and peanut.
Dessert was Alfajor Helado, an Argentine delicacy made even more vibrant with passion fruit ice cream.
The whole meal was beyond delicious.
Christina’s first cookbook, “Sabores del Sudeste Asiatico,” was published and launched this year in Buenos Aires. Ambassador Carandang, in his prologue written in Spanish, pays tribute to the author and friend for introducing the culinary culture of the Philippines and that of the region in Argentina.
A true Filipino at heart, Christina loves her guava-based sinigang, kalamay, lechon and barbecue with rice. Once in a while, when Ambassador Carandang would host a dinner in his home, Christina would sneak into the kitchen to eat champorado and tuyo.
What a genuine pleasure to know and have this proud Kapampangan, still one of Buenos Aires’ well-kept secrets, whip up an amazing and unforgettable dinner. She not only banished our craving for home-cooked food, but also stamped Cucina Sunae as our own personal five-star recommendation for everyone who visits Buenos Aires.