Argentina-based chef Christina Sunae returns to the Philippines to introduce new dishes at her eponymous restaurant following a nine-city tour to promote her book, Kusinera Filipina

As a Korean-American woman who was born in the US, raised in Pampanga, and now calls Buenos Aires her home, chef Christina Sunae had long dealt with a stifling identity crisis. Today, this multifaceted background has become her greatest asset—an advantage that sings through every dish at her eponymous Southeast Asian restaurant, Sunae.

The casual family-style eatery is chef Sunae’s first restaurant in the Philippines, and first opened its doors in March of 2020—it was only open for about one week, then was forced to shut down due to the lockdown. Now that travel restrictions have eased, Sunae took the first opportunity to fly back to the Philippines to introduce new items on the menu, bursting with the punchy flavours of Vietnam, Thailand, and of course, the Philippines.

Lately, the culinarian has also kept busy promoting her newest book, Kusinera Filipina. With photography by Eduardo Torres, who previously worked on Mauro Colagreco’s Mizarur, the extensive publication is not only a celebration of regional dishes across the country but a homage to the Philippine culture she considers her own. 

Hear more about the chef, her restaurant, and Kusinera Filipina, below:

See also: A Taste of Home with Argentina-Based Chef Christina Sunae, the Korean-American From Pampanga

What was the philosophy behind Sunae Asian Cantina?

The concept actually began in my own kitchen. I couldn’t find the Southeast Asian flavours I grew up with around me, so I figured, why not cook it myself and introduce it to the Argentines? They loved it. I hosted dinners in my home for six years, it was called Cocina Sunae—it has a double meaning because cocina means both “kitchen” and “to cook.” It became really popular, so we moved to a bigger location.

What native Filipino ingredients have you been excited to work with, that you can’t get in Argentina?

Sigarilyas. That and blue crab; both are in our new spicy blue crab curry. Fish, too—I mean, we have fish in Argentina, but it’s different, they’re different fish. Oh, and coconut milk. In Argentina, it normally comes from a powder, or it’s canned from Thailand or the Philippines. But here [at Sunae], we get it fresh.

See also: Where To Order Thai Food In Metro Manila

Tell us about the new dishes at Sunae Asian Cantina.

We’re introducing new dishes by batch every month so the kitchen can get used to the flow. Earlier you had the tiger crackers with tofu, fresh herbs, peanut hoisin sauce, and rice noodles, very Vietnamese. And the burnt cabbage, which is also vegan—we focused on vegan and vegetarian dishes first because we needed to add plant-based options to the menu. Then there’s the Sunae tamal, our take on the Kamapmangan tamales, because my mom is from Pampanga. And if you like our sisig, wait until you try the pork liempo. Our dishes are bold and vibrant, spicy but not too spicy. Everything is balanced.

See also: The Best Sisig in The Philippines According to Top Chefs

What is it like for you to finally open a resto here? Why did you want to?

I actually never thought about opening a restaurant in the Philippines. It was Carlo [Lorenzana]’s [from the Nikkei group] idea. When we met [in Argentina], he goes “hey why don’t we open a restaurant in the Philippines?” I said, “...in the motherland? Will they like my cooking?” And he said “yes, of course, your food is great!”.  

What were you most excited about with regards to your first restaurant here?

I’m excited about being able to come back more often. I mean, I usually come back once a year anyway [before the pandemic], but now I’ll be back twice a year. I’m not Filipino, but it doesn’t feel strange. I’m happy here.

See also: Now Open: Serai, A Modern Australian-Filipino Restaurant in Melbourne

What is it like living in Argentina but overseeing Sunae Asian Cantina here in the Philippines?

Our meetings are normally either six in the morning or ten at night, and sometimes I’ll wake up at 4am to go through emails and reply to messages. But the team is great, and they’re very capable.

Tell us about your new book.

The book is called Kusinera Filipina, and it’s written in Spanish. I wanted to showcase Filipino food to the Spanish-speaking audience—there aren’t any Filipino cookbooks written in Spanish, normally they’re written in English and then maybe translated to Spanish. We travelled around the Philippines—Bacolod, General Santos, Palawan...it was supported by the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs). It’s a cookbook with recipes, but we really wanted to capture the culture. We captured faces, the people, as well as the food.

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