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Getting to Know You: Katie Sanderson

'Getting to Know You' is a series of Q&As with members of the vibrant Irish international community to share their cultural heritage, food memories and stories.

Hong-Kong born Katie Sanderson has been working in food for 15 years. She is the founder and co-owner of White Mausu, a chilli oil company that began in the Dublin markets and now has an online shop as well as distribution all over Ireland and mainland Europe.

She was the cook on the RTÉ programme Grow Cook Eat, which was conceived by GIY Ireland to encourage people to grow and eat vegetables.

Katie’s restaurant Dillisk was a 30-seat restaurant in a boat shed on Ireland’s West Coast, serving tandoor fish straight from the boats and foraged seaweed. Her Living Dinners was a raw vegan pop-up in run-down buildings and the Wicklow rainforest.

Never conventional in her culinary approach, Katie champions the food of other cultures, the work of farmers and producers, and believes that the experience of eating can be as important as the food itself.

She dreams of a big garden with lots of chickens.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and grew up in Hong Kong to an Irish mother and a half-English, half-South African father. We spent summers in the west of Ireland. So I lived two very different existences. Hong Kong was energetic and heavily populated, with bright lights, night markets, chopsticks, stimulation on every corner, and the local pigeon restaurant. Connemara was wet, wild and slower, with picnics and rock pools, wearing a jumper (but no wellies!), eating Taytos, hunting for blackberries, and a lot of rain.

On Friday nights in Hong Kong, we used to have “naughty nights.” I think it was initially called this because we didn't have to wash, and we ate our dinner on a rug in the sitting room. Also it was because my dad used to work very late during the week, but on “naughty” Friday nights, he would always come home before dinner, weighed down with laser discs (movie discs that were popular in Asia; they looked like DVDs but were the size of records). There was so much excitement for him to be there with us on the weekends, and then to debate what order we would watch the films he had brought us. It was pure joy.

When I was seven years old, I was allowed to make dinner. I would pick things out from the local supermarkets. Sometimes it just was a frozen meal to which I’d add ingredients, most likely extra cheese. Still I'd feel like I cooked it, and I got a real buzz.

I came to boarding school in Ireland aged ten. I used to pack a suitcase filled to the brim with Hong Kong sweets and dried noodles for all my friends. White Rabbits (chewy, white candies that are a cross between caramel and marshmallow), Pocky (biscuits shaped like chopsticks and dipped in chocolate) and American-style candies they had never seen.

Have you always cooked?

My mum tells this story of me getting a Fisher-Price kitchen set on my third birthday. For years, everything else was relegated, as my toy kitchen took centre stage in my pretend hosting and cooking.

Later, I revelled in the creative freedom of the kitchen. This was especially true because I was someone that did not necessarily excel in the classroom. And not being a fan of too many perimeters and rules, I loved that I could really play without someone breathing down my neck.

I remember finding and using food colouring in cakes at around eight years of age. The surprise element really excited me.

I don't really recall a moment when I was younger, when I officially learned how to cook. I watched my mum host, which she did often and was very good at, especially in the organisational aspects. But I always enjoyed eating, so for me, cooking was a very natural progression. When I finished secondary school, I went to Ballymaloe, which I loved. Apart from that, my culinary education was gleaned from what I picked up from different friends and cooks along the way.

One of my favourite cooks is my friend Luca. He cooks wholesome and homely Italian food that makes my heart feel full.

And then I live with one of my other favourite cooks, my partner Jasper (O’Connor)! Jasper excels at anything that is one pot and layered. He is sometimes called the “Curry King” but it doesn't end there! He does this veggie stew in winter that makes you go "Ahhhh." When we had Dillisk (restaurant in Connemara run by Sanderson and O’Connor), he would make this tomato-based broth as the base for some local mussels that he then carefully layered with his dad's homemade pancetta, the mussel water, herbs, olive oil and spices. When I think about that dish and our little (Dillisk) kitchen with sea views, I smile deeply.

Katie, age 3, with her Fisher-Price cooker.

What is your favourite dish and food memory?

Favourite memories always bring me back to tomatoes. A bar in San Sebastian after a day on the beach with a plate of locally grown tomatoes swimming in olive oil with lots of salt.

Where do you shop?

I shop in a mix of places. I will source out local eggs, honey and veg when I can. We always have a five kilo tub of Maldon salt and a five kilo tub of another sea salt, as well as five litres of olive oil, and most likely 4-5 more bottles tucked under the stairs.

I shop in Asia Market for pantry goods, as I always like to have all the ingredients for any Chinese or Japanese inspired recipes.

I crave tropical fruit, having spent lots of time in Kenya. Mangoes, passion and pineapple inhabit, in my opinion, the next level closest to the sun.

I am quite excited about the move online for many producers and shops, as there is more of a chance of getting direct-to-source and special ingredients now, even though we have moved out of the city.

Are you particularly excited about the cuisines of other cultures, and if so, which ones?

We are cooking and eating a lot of Italian inspired food. I think it's the result of the pandemic and wanting carby delights. But also anything East Asian, specifically China, Japan or Korea. Those countries’ cuisines are markedly different, and vary wildly in their own regions. I get so excited about learning recipes and accumulating knowledge from these places.

I used to hate mushrooms, but then there was this lovely older KP called Tom Jones with whom I used to work years ago. He said there was no such thing as not liking something, and you just had to train your tongue. So I did. And now I love mushrooms! Tom also said there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. If you live here those are some very wise words indeed.

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