Given that two-thirds of all Argentines have either Italian or Spanish blood, it’s not surprising that European dishes (with hints of Middle Eastern and Jewish flavours) have long dominated food heritage in Argentina. But because of the South American country’s willingness to welcome migrants, a wave of Asian cuisines have been steadily landing kimchi, curries and ramen onto Buenos Aires’ dining tables. The capital is home to the barrio chino (Chinatown) in Belgrano, and barrio coreano (K Town) in Flores. A cluster of festivals – including Korean Hansik and Gastro Japo (pronounced hapo) Food Week – keep Asian food in the spotlight. Meanwhile, Masterchef Celebrity Argentina has included three Asian guest chefs.
Here, Fine Dining Lovers talks to some of the hottest names behind Buenos Aires’ flourishing Asian food scene.
Photo credit: Romina Savastano
“I love taking a Korean ingredient and using it in the least Korean way possible,” says Lis Ra of Na Num, where she shakes up dishes such as smoked oyster mushrooms with kimchi asado and gochujang-lacquered ribs. Recently seen in the Cocina Asiática series on El Gourmet, the Argentine-Korean chef has been on a rollercoaster 12 months after opening her unconventional Korean restaurant in Chacarita during Argentina’s stringent lockdown.
Her notable profile contributes to the growing interest from Argentines in Asian food, which is deeper than a passing fad. “While it’s ‘newer’ here than in Europe or North America, Asian food’s role in the world is part of a cultural expansion, where music and film are also protagonists,” she says. “And, as people become more conscientious about a healthy balanced diet, the spotlight also turns to Asian cuisine.”
Roy Dominguez Asato
Working on the gyoza production line as an 18-year-old gastronomy student was quite the learning experience, recalls sensei chef Roy Dominguez Asato, who today owns two restaurants. While his Japanese mother served miso soup, rice and pickles at home, he was also raised on milanesas and dulce de leche, typical Argentine fare.
So how does he bring together both cultures? “The Spanish heritage from my dad means I love intense flavours, while my Japanese side looks for harmony. Ultimately, it’s all about finding balance,” he says. Co-owner of the well-established Asato Sushi & Asian Food in Olivos, Roy’s most recent project Orei delves into a different element of Japanese cuisine. A pandemic project that opened a month ago, the tiny Belgrano-based takeaway ramen and onigiri bar a block from barrio chino is causing quite the buzz, punters slurping up Ramen Roy’s tonkotsu soup and charred black garlic oil with gusto.
Photo credit: Eduardo Torres
Her culinary education began in the Philippines, learning to make liga beef, potato and cabbage soup with her mother, while her first paid job was cleaning tables as a 14-year-old. But cooking was always American-Korean-Filipina chef Christina Sunae’s passion – and it won through when she moved to Argentina 16 years ago. Leading Cocina Sunae out of her living room during Buenos Aires’ puerta cerrada (closed door) restaurant boom, today she leads two establishments in the capital – Apu Nena, an Asian tapas spot with Filipino roots named after her grandmother, and south-east Asian-focused Cantina Sunae – as well as a third in Manila, which opened days before the global pandemic hit.
Photo credit: Eduardo Torres
Renowned for her Thai and Filipino curries at Cantina, and stuffed squid with banana ketchup at Apu, in May Sunae published her second book, Kusinera Filipina, in Spanish, which focuses on dishes from the archipelago. “While my restaurants cook Asian food, we do use local products, such as poke with sweetbreads, a very Argentine ingredient,” she says.
Starting out in the legendary Tegui, Korean-Argentine Pablo Park came through the culinary ranks before opening Asian-fusion Kyopo in Flores, five years ago. Growing up eating both Korean and Argentine food, kimchi was always on the table. “At asados (barbecues), served with milanesas – and we even served it with pasta dishes,” he remembers.
Photo by Pablo Park
It was high time that Asian food became more popular in Argentina, he says, and the second-generation chef is proud to represent his parents’ motherland. “In Europe and the US, Korean food has been very accessible for a while, and growing in popularity. Argentines eventually started searching it out and, as a chef, it’s really satisfying to represent it here.” While Argentine ingredients are staples at casual dining spot Kyopo, whose regulars love Pablo’s marinated spicy pork jeyuk and his vegan reinvention with oyster mushrooms, he remains faithful when it comes to plating traditional dishes such as bibimbap. And of course, kimchi is always within easy reach at his restaurant.
His first job was preparing rolls and sashimi at Murasaki two decades ago and today Argentine-Japanese chef Edgar Kuda runs three restaurants: the star turn is Kuda Omakase, which opened January 2020 in Barrio Norte. While his nikkei mother didn’t prepare much Japanese food when he was growing up, white rice was an essential, teamed with traditional Argentine dishes such as asado and milanesa.
When it came to opening Omakase, Kuda realised the two food cultures might prove hard to bring together so he contemplated a different tack. He says: “I tried to modify the nikkei mindset and open up our culture with regard to gastronomy. The way people eat sushi has become distorted over time, for example, they add too much soy sauce, so at Omakase we serve it with just the right amount.” Since opening 27-seater Omakase, Kuda soon discovered many of his diners have eaten in Japan. “River Plate football fans travelled to Japan to see the club play, while the rugby world cup was also held there. Their travels contribute to the Asian food boom that’s happening in Buenos Aires.”
Photo credit: Patricio Pidal
While the man behind the caricature behind Mr Ho has tipped the other side of 50, Seoul-born Martín Ho is a relative newcomer to the restaurant world. Migrating to Argentina as a 10-year-old in 1978, he worked in textiles before jacking in the family trade in 2016. Inspired by his brother Victor, co-owner of the popular Una canción coreana, Ho studied the culinary arts in his native South Korea before opening Mr Ho in Flores; it moved premises to Retiro in 2020.
Photo credit: Bisra Foto
In this family business, Ho cooks alongside wife Diana, while daughters Carolina, Celeste and Abi are in service. At home, there’s a veritable mash-up of flavours, which contribute to K food’s popularity. He says: “I’m Korean but we eat pizza and asado while kimchi is always on the table. Everything comes together. And the many flavours in Korean food — acidity, saltiness, sweetness and spiciness — make it exciting for diners.”
Big in Japan (and Argentina)
Hokkaido-born Takehiro Ohno migrated to Argentina in 2005 and after opening doDo Club, was picked up by El Gourmet and quickly became a well-known face on TV. Pastry chef at Latin America’s 50 Best restaurant Chila, sansei Japanese-Argentine Ana Irie also specialises in wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery), adding to her already solid patisserie repertoire.
While Maximiliano Matsumoto’s CV is a Who’s Who of top restaurants such as Tegui and Casa Cruz, it wasn’t until the second-generation Argentine-Japanese chef opened Tora with sommelier Aldo Graziani that he dedicated a menu to Asia. He is head chef at the Carrasco Hotel in Montevideo, Uruguay.
A founding member of the Gastro Japo club that unites nikkei cooks, Sergio Asato is best known for Sushi Izakaya. In this family affair, son Matias Ryuji Asato helms the Nuñez-based Japanese tavern’s kitchen.
Other Asian Restaurants in Argentina
Other notable Asian restaurants include Latin America 50 Best regular Gran Dabbang as well as Dehli Mahal and Mash for Indian flavours; Green Bamboo and the 2021 opening CoChinChina for Vietnamese dishes; Bao Kitchen for Taiwanese; Bi Won for Korean barbecue; Fukuro Noodle Bar for ramen and Pablo Chinen ‘s Comida Casera Japonesa for Japanese; Asian parrilla Niño Gordo; and Sudestada for south-east Asian.