By the book

SaboresIf the crowds in the supermarkets were to go by in China Town last weekend, I’d say that Asian food is undergoing some kind of revolution in Buenos Aires. Casa China on Arribeños Street was rammed with buyers snapping up rice, herbs and spices, although they probably left the chickens’ feet to the Taiwanese.

And it might be a coincidence that Christina Sunae, chef and owner of private restaurant Cocina Sunae in Colegiales, launched her first cookbook 10 days ago, but a happy one it is.

Sabores del Sudeste Asiático takes 45 of Sunae’s recipes that have been passed down by her Filipina mother and grandmother, and what’s remarkable about this book is that it’s the first of its kind to be written in Spanish and be published in Argentina.

Born in the US and raised in the Philippines, when the Asian-American (for in fact she has two mothers, her Korean birth mother and her father’s Filipina second wife who brought her up) first came to Argentina, she spoke no Spanish. A husband, two children and a restaurant eight years on, a logical next step – although not necessarily while pregnant with her daughter – was to put pen to paper.

However, reluctance played a large part in the process. Sunae was one of the first friends I made in Buenos Aires five years ago, and one time she invited me over for lunch. It was the best Thai green curry I’d possibly ever had, bursting with vibrant flavours that I’d been craving. I couldn’t believe she’d managed to get the ingredients, not only to make this dish but that she had made something so exquisite. Of course, back then I didn’t know her as well as I do now (her background working in Asian restaurants in New York, for example) and I suggested she write them down. “I don’t really want to share them,” came the reply.

Now a successful restaurateur on the verge of moving the eaterie from her home to a permanent space, conversations over the years with her brother – who is also a chef but in South Carolina – persuaded her to pick up the pen “otherwise all the recipes will be lost.” The threat worked and 2013 sees Christina Sunae the proud expat author of the first – and hopefully not last – recipe collection of its kind in Argentina.

A personal book, every recipe tells a tale whether it recounts recent experiences in the Philippines about eating Ukoy shrimp and vegetable croquettes in the street or that her son loves a Cha Yen Thai tea when he gets home from school – they all run the gamut of her childhood and working adult life.

In my home, it’s Mr. Links who does almost all of the cooking. Our friends know that and when it came to book-signing time, Sunae asked if she should address it to us both, given that my fame doesn’t extend to the kitchen. His reply? “When she cooks, she generally makes a curry so she’ll find this really useful. So address it to both of us!”

Always keen to go against the general consensus and keen to taste-drive some of the dishes I’ve enjoyed at her restaurant, I decided to rustle up Pho (and I say rustle up, it takes a good three hours to make this Vietnamese beef soup) and a Thai Nuea Num Tok beef salad. And to make things a tiny bit more difficult for myself, I invited round North American-Filipina friend Malene, who knows good Pho when she tastes it. (“When it touches your lips, the dissolved bone marrow should lightly cling to them like a lip salve,” she says.)

And what are friends for? At the book launch, which was held at Palermo Soho’s Punto Cuc and attracted quite the international crowd including the Filipino and Thai ambassadors, the former who receives a message of gratitude in Sabores for believing in her cooking, I grabbed Sunae and told her I genuinely intended to use her book. Her tip? “Check what ingredients you have before you start.” Useful, in fact, given that the expat exodus has slowly stocked our cupboards with unwanted fish sauce, cinnamon sticks, star anise and the like. Good advice indeed, and in fact Sabores has various tips throughout, such as fresh curry pastes can be stored in the freezer.

Fighting my way through the Chinatown masses, book in one hand, mobile device with a list of ingredients emailed to self in the other, it took two supermarkets to fulfill my needs. Although neither, despite a lot of shelf space, stocked wide rice noodles. No matter, thin ones would do. The only other item that I couldn’t find was fresh lemongrass, so I made do with powder instead.

Pho’s soupy base comprises beef bones, and if you ask your butcher for bones for your dog, a few kilos won’t cost much more than 10 pesos. Of course, it also needs a decent cut so a little under half a kilo of fillet (lomo) for 40 pesos was also purchased.

Determined to wow the judges with my prowess at following instructions and cooking on my own, I failed at the first hurdle. “Roast the onion and ginger over an open flame.” What? My inexperience at improvising kicked in, shamefully. Fortunately Linksy was on hand to explain and do something miraculous with one of those awful metal hob-top toasters: by unfolding the flap the grill part then became a base on which to place the onion and ginger. I was open roasting away in no time.

Three hours later, and I’d resisted pulling out the slippery marrow from the bones, came the best part. Once the stock is boiling away and you’re ready to serve, you pour the stock over the raw meat ready and waiting with the noodles and vegetables. The slim slices change colour and cook before your very eyes, magic in a bowl.

However, it is a labour of love, and not a dish to whip up on the spur of the moment, delicious as it is, and even if you do have a dog that doesn’t mind giving up his bones for you.

My Pho.
My Pho.
If I may be so bold as to suggest it, you’ll hopefully agree that my Pho-to and Frances Ren Huang’s from Sabores del Sudeste Asiático have similar elements, in terms of appearance.

And the most important part: Malene and Mr. Link’s opinions. Silence from both, interspersed with little sighs of contentment from Malene. Then, “you’ve got it right, I can feel the marrow on my lips.”

Thank you, Christina Sunae, for helping me feed my friend and my boyfriend last weekend and stunning them into near silence. A tear might have even been shed by a certain someone – and not because of the heat.

And although I haven’t mentioned any details about the Nuea Num Tok beef salad, rest assured that it was also a success story. Fresh, citrus, with ample mint and coriander leaves, it had the perfect balance of hot and cool in every bite.

I felt so smug about following both these recipes and feeding people without anything rotten happening to them, that the very next night I was bold enough to make a Thai green curry paste – from scratch.

Christina Sunae’s collection is a first in Argentina, but trust me, making Pho and curry paste were equally large first steps for this kitchen-shy cook.

Sabores del Sudeste Asiático
By Christina Sunae
Photography: Frances Ren Huang
Ediciones Lea
120 pages
Available from and Punto Cuc

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