Chili-ing out

Bird’e eye chili peppers on Sunae’s roof terrace...It takes green fingers to make a garden grow, and at every turn I have been defeated in my attempts to get coriander or basil to sprout from seed, or even coax a fully established lavender to keep going in this city.

Last year, on Malbec world day, which was held for the first time in Mendoza, I was given a Malbec plant of my very own to love and nurture. I flew it back to Buenos Aires disguised as hand luggage, it lived on my roof terrace then on the balcony, survived moving house to take pole position on a different balcony. And it breaks my heart to say it but that little vine is no longer with us. Sob.

As an aside, the second Malbec world day is next week so be sure to raise a glass or bottle of the red stuff, wherever you may be. In downtown Buenos Aires, various sites will be blushing on Tuesday evening, April 17, such as the Obelisk, and a few areas of Puerto Madero in tribute.

And as a second aside, if you’d rather let someone else pop your cork, Le Mistral at the Four Seasons has put together a special menu in tribute of the great grape with lunch and dinner options. Accompany a glass of the red stuff with a fancy milanesa at midday, or be lured in by scrumptious-sounding, Malbec-marinated lamb ravioli as one starter option, and Kobe beef steaks as a main come nightfall.

Anyway, this isn’t about betting on how much Malbec it will take to make me fall over this week (and that could happen at the 0800-VINO rosé tasting on Friday, April 20), but about how to make gardens grow.

Last week, I caught up with one green-fingered chef whose bird’s eye chilis are popping up all over her roof terrace, which are essential ingredients for the signature dishes she creates at her restaurant.

Christina Sunae, whose closed-door restaurant Cocina Sunae specializes in south-east Asian cuisine, used to buy her spicy little friends from Chinatown but after two trips to the mother continent — she recently arrived back in March after an extensive and inspirational tour of the Phillipines and Vietnam — she brought back some seeds to sow her own chili and herb garden.

...which make the final cut into her southeast Asian dishes.

This is not akin to a failed window-box experiment upon which I laid my incapable hands, but these are practically chili peppers trees in full bloom with tiny red and green bird’s eyes, perfectly at home alongside Thai basil and lemongrass.

Sunae, an Asian-American whose dishes run the gauntlet between many including Pad Thai, Filipino Kinilaw (a citric grouper salad), or Vietnamese pho, says: “I got these chili seeds last year from the Philippines, which are called siling labuyo in Tagalog but they are more often known as bird’s eye chili, most commonly known in Thailand, but are grown and used all over southeast Asia.

“They are known to be the second-hottest chili behind the habanero and the seeds are what make it spicy hot. But what makes it different from other chilis is that the fruit, or chili, grows upward, reaching for the sun, whereas most other chilis hang down.

“Also, the leaves on the bird’s eye chili are edible as well… we use them as a vegetable in soup in Filipino cooking. They have a peppery flavor but not spicy hot.”

To say the restaurant has come on leaps and bounds since I first tried a Thai yellow curry in her San Telmo living-room in 2008 when Cocina Sunae was just an idea bubbling on her stove is an understatement: now operating three nights a week in Colegiales, Sunae is simply doing what she has known her whole life — preparing delicious, honest, flavoursome meals for her family — and now her extended family, and even the viewing public, thanks to a stint on El Gourmet TV channel.

And it is certainly a unique restaurant in a city where the closest one often gets to Asian food is sushi dripping in avocado.

Offering up a four-course menu for a well-priced 130 pesos, a trip around the southeast region is what make Sunae’s restaurant so special and gets those tastebuds in overdrive.

Reserve a private table on the patio or make some new friends at a communal one, the restaurant is still in touch with its puerta cerrada soul, and the menu changes weekly.

Two Thursdays ago, the saliva started to circulate with an ukoy crispy shrimp cake (from the Phillipines); juices really began flowing with course two and a Thai spicy seafood salad, every mouthful bursting with coriander, mint, red onion, scallions and a spicy citric dressing; went into overdrive with a stunning Thai muslim curry — chicken, coconut milk, potatoes, onions, tamarind sauce, peanuts and served with rice, all using those tiny little chilis; then I licked the bowl clean of homemade, green tea ice-cream and Filipino cassava cake. (Not really. But I totally would have done so in private.)

Besides every dish tasting exquisite, it was all fit for a photo shoot too. One of the most exciting meals which will doubtlessly eclipse many others for quite some time, I shall be headed back sooner rather than later.

Le Mistral
Posadas 1086/88, Recoleta
Tel: 4321-1200

0800-VINO, Abasto

Cocina Sunae

Photos courtesy of Christina Sunae.
Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on April 15, 2012.

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