Meet the woman bringing a taste of Asia to a Cork town

She packed in her job at a multi-national and decided to follow her passion for Asian food. KATE RYAN chats to May Kong, the woman behind SensAsian
Meet the woman bringing a taste of Asia to a Cork town
May O'Donovan with husband John and children John Jnr and Sophie at SensAsian, Link Road, Ballincollig, Co Cork.Pic; Larry Cummins

MAY Kong arrived in Ireland in 2004, but after seven years working for a multi-national, she yearned for a change of pace; something that would take her away from the isolation of working in a cubicle and reconnect her with fond memories created from sharing it with friends and family back in Hong Kong.

“It was interaction with people I missed,” recalls May.

“And although I was working in a company with about 1,000 other people, I felt very isolated. I was hungry for a real relationship with people and I wanted to be more involved in Irish society. In there, I didn’t feel as though I was a part of anything.

“Sometimes, when I had a day off, I would go to the Farmers’ Market in Mahon Point, and I always noticed how happy people looked, walking around, enjoying the market. I love travel and I love food, so every time I visit a new place, before I see the city, I go first and visit the local market! I want to see what people eat; what do they use and what is the local produce.

May O'Donovan at SensAsian, Link Road, Ballincollig, Co Cork.Picture: Larry Cummins
May O'Donovan at SensAsian, Link Road, Ballincollig, Co Cork.Picture: Larry Cummins

“In Cork, we have the lovely English Market, we have Mahon Point and many other amazing markets.”

May wondered if she could be a part of something like that, but didn’t think she would actually find herself trading there. Then, in 2014, she launched SenseAsian, largely as an experiment, trading at local Farmers’ Markets, selling her home-cooked tastes of Asia, and enthusiastically sharing her passion for delicious and nutritious Asian food.

“My first idea was to open a small shop; but to do that without any background would have been a mistake. When you open a shop, there are so many overheads, some things you don’t even think would be a cost are a cost.

“After considering my options for a long time I decided I didn’t want to have too much burden on my family, and began trading at Mahon Farmers’ Market to see how it might work!”

May’s passion for food and cookery wasn’t something learned at the apron strings of her family. Instead, she is a walking, talking culinary sponge, learning by osmosis, through a love of travel and the very Cantonese obsession with food.

“I am from Hong Kong and we have very good food there — we are spoiled, really! It’s a culinary mixing pot, so we like to try everything and all different cuisines. I like travelling too, so I learn when I go to different places. When I come home then, I want to try and recreate that food from memory, and just experiment until I get it right.”

May O'Donovan at SensAsian, Link Road, Ballincollig, Co Cork.Pic; Larry Cummins
May O'Donovan at SensAsian, Link Road, Ballincollig, Co Cork.Pic; Larry Cummins

Eventually, May felt as though she wanted to branch out from the Farmers’ Markets and do private catering and cookery classes in people’s homes. And although proud of her Cantonese roots, she didn’t want to open just another Asian food store. Instead May wanted the challenge of taking the social elements of the Farmers’ Market and channelling that into an Asian food emporium where customers could browse, interact, taste, learn and ask her any question they may have about what to cook, how, and with what ingredients.

May opened her vision for a whole new kind of Asian food experience in 2018 with SenseAsian Fayre in Ballincollig — the town she has called home for many years, with her Cork husband, John O’Donovan, and two children, a daughter, aged 13, and a son, aged nine.

“I’m still trading at Mahon Point Farmers’ Market, and it’s a pity I can’t do more because I feel like I have to say bye-bye to people. It’s an environment that is so interactive, and customers there have supported me all along, so I don’t want to leave! But, since opening SenseAsian Fayre, I feel like I have a location now, so people know where to find me; I can continue bringing high quality and good service in a way that is manageable and in balance.” 

As well as specialising in Asian deli and grocery, SenseAsian Fayre also has a hot food bar, a salad bar selling house-made seaweed salads and vegan Kimchi, and hosts cooking demonstrations and workshops.

“Demos take place in the shop every Saturday at 11.30am and again at 1pm and are free. The demos aim to teach everyone some cooking skill. They are quick and I like to prepare dishes that can be made within half an hour using fresh ingredients.

“I like learning from my customers. I want to understand why they don’t want to try something new, and some people don’t like asking questions. Where does that fear come from? At SenseAsian Fayre, we want to create an open atmosphere where people can come and ask me anything about the food, cooking or ingredients. I want it to be like a channel for them: to come and taste the food, see how I make it so hopefully they can cook it at home rather than opt for a takeaway.

“Children can eat better too! My two children eat everything, they are not afraid! So many children don’t seem to want to eat vegetables, and I always wonder how it can be possible? If you are living in an environment surrounded by variety, why wouldn’t you at least try?

“So by teaching people, we are giving people the skills to be able to create interesting and delicious food at home, to bring in more variety, open up their palates, and then, children especially, will want to try more.”

May O'Donovan with husband John and children John Jnr and Sophie at SensAsian, Link Road, Ballincollig, Co Cork.Pic; Larry Cummins
May O'Donovan with husband John and children John Jnr and Sophie at SensAsian, Link Road, Ballincollig, Co Cork.Pic; Larry Cummins

Workshops are usually more hands on, so there is a small fee of around €25pp to cover the cost of ingredients, and they take place on a Friday evening. May also has plans to create interactive and social Supper Club events, where guests learn to cook something together and then dine together. Plans are afoot to launch this for the winter, so keep an eye out for that.

“I want to change the culture of Asian food in Ireland,” says May.

“To eat healthily is not just about eating a lot of green leafy veg! We need to eat good, nutritious food, and there’s a benefit to bringing in more diversity into our daily diet; not by getting a takeaway on a Friday, but to cook something at home that’s not so complicated, cooked from scratch in 20-30 minutes and can fit into our daily life after work, not something that takes half a day to cook!

“No-one has time like that, and I know, because I have two kids myself, and I am working and doing lots of different things all the time at the moment, but at the same time we like to eat well too. So something that is easy to cook but tasty is what we eat. The demos help to build up your knowledge — I can’t give you fish, but I can teach you how to fish, you know!”

May is keen to teach people about the healthfulness of Asian Cuisine — not just some kind of gravy poured over chicken and vegetables.

“We steam, we braise, we slow cook and fry. Steaming is a big thing in Cantonese food, it’s a gentle form of cooking that keeps the taste fresh.

“I teach Thai food because I love it. I’ve travelled there many times, and it is where I met my husband. He lived in Korea for a while too so we both love Korean food because it’s very fashionable in Hong Kong.

“I love teaching people how to cook these foods, and when they go home and cook it for their family, they get big praise. People send me photos of the dishes they make at home, so it’s like a little family now!”

For May, one of the greatest pleasures in life is eating together.

“It brings so much joy,” she says. “In Hong Kong, we don’t just eat from our own plate — we are always sharing food! We don’t go to the pub so when we go out to meet with friends, we go for dinner. Dining is very leisurely, taking up to four hours! We order a lot of food and then we share, so we are eating as a group, not just on our own. I believe it is a healthier way to eat too, because you aren’t just concentrating on one dish, you are eating a bit of everything.

“Food is how we show love, and it is also how we communicate. People in Hong Kong always ask, have you eaten yet? Sharing food or cooking for someone is how we show we care about you: handmade and homemade is made from the heart!”

When May decided to set up SenseAsian at Mahon Farmers’ Market all those years ago, she left all traces of her comfortable corporate job behind her. To do anything less would, she says, have felt like having a safety net in place, and the possibility that it might deter her from giving everything to make her new business a success.

“I was relieved that I had finally found something that I could enjoy. I didn’t know how it would go, but I think if you don’t start something, you’ll never know at all. I like to be challenged and to try new things. And when you enjoy and love something, you will always give it 100%; and then, when the feedback is good, it makes you want to try even harder!”

People who arrive at May’s door at SenseAsian Fayre love food, so there is an instant common ground. Food is about pleasure, not just about fuel. It creates bonds and communities, inspires communication and curiosity — a pure passion and a sauce for the soul. A sauce that May Kong serves up generously!

For more see SensAsian is based at Unit 8B, Westpoint Business Park, Link Road, Ballincollig, Cork

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