Fare Play: An Asian Chef in Argentina

East meets meat in Korean-born sushi chef Mun Kim's kitchen.



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Mun Kim, a Korean-born sushi chef who trained under Makota Okuwa in Los Angeles, may seem an unlikely food star in the steak-centric dining scene of Buenos Aires. But Kim enthralled local foodies and tourists when he opened his Asian-fusion eatery, Casa Mun, in 2010, using locally sourced produce to craft Japanese- and Korean-inspired tasting menus paired with Argentine wines.

The 45-year-old chef served as the culinary ambassador for the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires before a Mendoza winery offered him his dream job: Executive chef at Mun, Casarena Winery & Vineyards’ new restaurant in Argentina’s celebrated Luján de Cuyo region. Here, Kim offers his thoughts on exploring new food communities and the art of pairing sushi with Pinot.

One of the reasons I moved to South America was to pair Asian cuisine with Argentine wine. There’s a common belief that wine doesn’t complement Japanese and Korean food—people tend to choose beer or sake instead.  But ever since my first experiments pairing sushi with varietals from Bodega Patritti in Neuquén, in the northernmost region of Argentina’s Patagonia, I see it differently. Whether I’m working with a traditional or fusion dish, I’m always adapting my recipes with wine pairings in mind.

I first started traveling to Buenos Aires as a tourist in 2006. The city has an infectious energy that really excites me, and when I had to leave, I always felt sad. But wheels were turning. It struck me as odd that Buenos Aires, one of the largest cities in the world, had a very limited selection of Asian cuisine. It’s a meat-dominated food scene. But my background and points of reference are totally different. I’m a sushi chef, trained in Los Angeles.

Still, in 2010, I took the plunge: Even though I didn’t know a word of Spanish, I moved to Buenos Aires and opened my first restaurant, Casa Mun. As I had suspected, people were hungry for Asian cuisine. But there were two other big reasons why we were a hit. I could navigate Buenos Aires’ Asian community and get my hands on spices from Japan, Korea, Thailand and China that rarely show up on dinner plates in
Argentina.

The other key was that we could procure wines from all over the country and pair them with food in unexpected ways. One of the first white wines we chose was Bodega Casarena’s Sauvignon Blanc. It was a great complement to my spicy dishes. The winemakers liked my style, and invited me to fly to Mendoza to cook for a special event. Of course, I immediately started thinking about wine pairings, so I asked if they had a Pinot Noir to serve with my sushi. Though they weren’t currently bottling it, they happened to be conducting a microvinification project with the grape. I prepared my sushi course for the winemaking team, and together we chose the finish for the Pinot Noir. It was like something out of a fairy tale. After that experience I wanted to do my work at the winery.

I’m bringing something new to Mendoza’s relatively conservative dining scene, it’s true, but living and working in Argentina’s wine country influences me, too. My latest dish reflects that: I’m serving a bife de lomo (beef tenderloin) with wasabi mashed potatoes and a reduction of soy sauce and Malbec. From my point of view, it’s a perfect fusion of Asian and Argentine ingredients. —As told to Bridget Gleeson

Kim's Fantasy Pairings

Chef Kim offers his ideal Argentine- and Asian-inspired tasting menu and the wines and spirits to match.

The plate: Fresh Kumamoto oysters
The pour: Waketake Onikoroshi (Shizuoka)

The plate: Seared toro, smoked yellowfin tuna and sweet shrimp
The pour: Casarena’s 2011 Reserva Pinot Noir

The plate: Tender Kobe beef served on hot rock
The pour: Casarena’s 2010 Reserva Malbec

The plate: Dark chocolate truffles  
The pour: Bushmills 21-Year-Old Single Malt

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