Over the years, the Irish pallet has evolved and adapted to embrace all cuisines – from European classics to Asian-inspired dishes. Fusing Irish favourites with flavours from around the world has become such an exciting aspect of the Irish food scene, as demonstrated by Holly Dalton and her range of Japanese-inspired sauces.
Recently, I caught up with the famed Irish chef, getting the inside scoop on how Conbini became the international sensation it is today. Like many thriving food businesses, Conbini “started out as a lockdown baby,” Holly explains. “All of the restaurants around Ireland closed, so it gave me time to consider what I want to do. I really wanted to be my own boss and be self-employed.”
“I kind of realised that owning a restaurant isn’t the most sustainable thing, but I’ve always had a huge passion for Japanese food. I’ve spent a bit of time in Japan and it’s been something I’ve been interested in since I was a child. Literally, my first cookery book that I bought when I was 13-years-old was Japanese,” Holly recalls, before going on to explain that she also has a great foundation in the art of sauce-making.
“I had a background as a chef developing a lot of sauces in kitchens. For instance, when I was head chef at 3fe, there was a fermented hot sauce on the menu that I came up with – so our Onsen Hot Sauce is kind of a riff on that. The foundation was already there and I knew I wanted it to be Japanese-inspired, but I wanted something that could also be used in Irish and European dishes.”
Conbini has a range of three sauces: The Sunday Sauce; the Onsen Hot Sauce; and the Katsu Ketchup.
While combining the flavours of a traditional katsu curry with tomato ketchup might sound a bit unusual, the thought process behind this creation couldn’t be more brilliant! “There’s this really strange thing with Japanese recipes, where people put ketchup in their curries – which is bizarre. I always thought that was kind of hilarious, but it does work!” says Holly.
Conbini’s Katsu Ketchup was made for dunking, and according to Holly, “Chipper chips, dunked in Katsu Ketchup are mind-blowing!”
Making her dream condiment business a reality in the middle of a global pandemic was no easy feat. Holly started out small, completing all of the recipe development at home, before going on to the production stage. “I was very lucky because it was during lockdown, and a good friend of mine owned a café and she let me use their kitchen during the night, when the cafe was closed,” Holly recalls, adding that she was able to invest in her own unit at the beginning of last year.
“It was just about growing the business slowly. I very much got mate’s rates when it was my friend letting me use her kitchen, and then when I was able to afford a better place I did. Growing it slowly is the most important thing. If you get too big overnight, you won’t be able to actually afford to get a bigger premises, because you need to have that cash flow,” Holly advises.
Of course, if you’re unfamiliar with this top-tier condiment range, then the first thing you might notice is the gorgeous packaging, designed by award-winning Irish illustrator and artist, Kathi Burke. Mascots are a huge part of Japanese culture, and are seen on most Japanese products – incorporating this concept into Conbini’s packaging was something Holly was deeply passionate about.
“I consulted with Kathi and told her about my idea, and I knew she would understand and I knew she would get it – she’s very knowledgeable and she’s been to Japan as well.” Holly explains, adding that she “had this idea of a character, and I wanted him to be doing different activities on each of the sauces and when I bring out different products in the future, he’ll be doing different activities on those as well. The Sunday Sauce is kind of a lazy Sunday vibe, so for the activity he’s in a hammock on that one. And then on the Katsu Ketchup he’s having a picnic, and then on the Onsen Hot Sauce he’s in a Japanese traditional onsen, which is like a bath house, and I wanted that to be like the spicy, the too hot to handle-type thing.”
“Kathi came up with those ideas, and we didn’t even have a draft. She sent me her first design and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s perfect. You nailed it straight away’. If the design wasn’t what it was, the range wouldn’t be nearly as successful – I know that. That’s what draws people in. It actually got to a stage when she gave me the design and I thought, ‘God, I hope the flavour is as good as this design, because the design is perfect.’”
With the weather getting a bit finer, we’re seriously looking forward to hosting a garden barbecue or two. Keeping you company in the kitchen this summer, there are so many ways to utilise these condiments when it comes to your summer feasts. For starters, the Sunday Sauce makes an excellent base for marinades when it comes to barbecuing chicken wings, drumsticks and the likes. “It really crisps up nicely in the oven and it’s very sticky,” Holly notes, adding that if you “were just grilling sausages, toss them in the Sunday Sauce afterwards and it’s really, really tasty!”
Meanwhile, the Onsen Hot Sauce is also perfect for marinades that call for more of a funky, spicy kick. “If you’re vegan or vegetarian, the Sunday Sauce is really good for grilled aubergine and grilled portobello mushrooms – you’d brush it on as it’s cooking and that would give it a really meaty umami flavour.”
“Katsu Ketchup is really great for sausage sandwiches at picnics. Kids really seem to like it as well – it’s really popular with kids and I actually got a lot of emails and DMs from customers, saying ‘my kids are really picky and they love the katsu ketchup.’”
Loyal customers will be delighted to hear there’s another new product launch in the works. However, it might not be with us for a little while, yet, as Holly reveals the Conbini family is going to be getting even bigger this year. “I’m pregnant at the moment, so I don’t know if I’m necessarily going to have any new products out this year, but, I do have a sesame miso caramel that I’m working on, that I’d love to launch.” Sounds absolutely incredible, we can’t wait to give it a taste!
To view their list of stockists, visit conbinicondiments.com/stockists. If you can’t find Conbini condiments at your local grocer, ask a manager to order some in.
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