Christina Sunae has been popularizing Filipino food in Argentina since 2005. In her 25-seat restaurant Cantina Sunae, in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, she has been drawing a following for Filipino cuisine with her adobo lodged in a steamed bao, seafood drenched in kare-kare sauce and sinigang soured with pineapple.
The self-taught cook has been successfully promoting our cuisine across Latin America—and she’s not even a Filipino. “I feel Filipino at heart,” she says.
She was born to a Korean mother and an American father who used to work as aircraft mechanic in the military and as kitchen cook. Her parents later separated, and her dad remarried, this time to a Filipina from Angeles, Pampanga.
The family moved to the Philippines, and that was when Christina grew familiar with sisig and bringhe. Her six-year stay in the country became her crash course in Filipino cuisine, which has come in pretty handy in running her restaurant.
Though there are a lot of Filipino ingredients not found in Argentina, she manages to adopt with ease, since her palate, she admits, has become very Filipino. “There’s a dish I learned called bulanglang (boiled vegetable soup from Batangas). It was my favorite dish growing up. I turn to guapple and passionfruit to achieve its flavor.”
Christina started her food business by hosting private dinners at home. “It was a trend that was already happening in the country, called restaurantes a puertas cerradas (closed-door restaurants). My place could sit only 25, but I ended up doing 75 covers a night. People showed up at my door without a reservation. It was a big hit, and a majority of what I cooked was Filipino food.”
The demand grew so big that she eventually decided to open a restaurant that serves a la carte dishes. “I had to think of what’s appealing to the Argentines because the way they look at food is different from the way Filipinos do. My maja blanca doesn’t look traditional, but the taste will remind you of it.”
Cantina Sunae is open only four hours a day, from 8 p.m. to midnight, and in that short span, they do up to 150 covers. “The people love it, since they are discovering and tasting something new.”
In December 2019, she opened Apu Nena, named after her Kapampangan grandmother who taught her most of the things she knows about Filipino food. It is a small shack offering Asian tapas such as bola-bola and bringhe.
Soon, she will open her third restaurant, and this time, in Manila. “It was never in my plans to open a restaurant here. My plan was to open restaurants all over South America. But this opportunity came up, and it allows me to be in the Philippines twice a year.”
Located on the second floor of One Bonifacio High Street Mall in Bonifacio Global City, Sunae, her 120-seat space, will serve southeast Asian flavors in different forms. There will be roti canai and yellow Thai curry with egg noodles alongside homegrown dishes like beef ribs in burnt coconut curry, lechon pao with ssamjang sauce, corn cake topped with adobo, and kinilaw na pipino with shiso.
Christina is polishing up her second book, “Kusinera Filipina,” a book devoted to Filipino cooking and culture. Before she flies back to Argentina next month to be with her children, as well as to launch the much anticipated cookbook, she will make sure that her namesake restaurant (Sunae is the surname of her Korean mother), a tie-up with the Nikkei restaurant group, will run smoothly and be up to her standards.
“I have to get it right. I want the food to be perfect and everyone trained right.”—CONTRIBUTED