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  • Writer's pictureGenevieve Avornyo

PALM OIL IN AMERICA SMELLS AND TASTES DIFFERENT: MY STRUGGLE TO FIND TASTY FOOD IN THE USA


By Genevieve Avornyo



The first time I visited the United States on April the fourteenth of 2022, I arrived at the Boston Logan International Airport where my husband, Kofi, met me and we took an Uber to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was super excited to visit him after a 13-hour flight. It was a pretty smooth journey from Accra, Ghana but I was already missing my banku and okra soup when we were served our first meal on the flight: rice with beef sauce.


In his apartment at Cambridge, my husband welcomed me with his homemade jollof rice and chicken. It looked good and tasted delicious. The chicken was very yummy and had all the right flavors. He knew that plate of Ghanaian comfort food would help smoothen my transition into America. I was visiting for the spring and summer and planning to move to Chicago in the fall.



“He knew that plate of Ghanaian comfort food would help smoothen my transition into America.”


Kofi and I got married about nine months ago in Ghana. At the time, he was a fellow at Harvard University, while I was a midwife living in Ghana. It had been a while since I saw him and I was ready to take our Facetime love to the next level. I was beyond happy to finally hug him again. It was my first time traveling outside Africa and even though I was excited, I kept wondering if I could adjust to Western food. I have heard stories about people like me, spoiled with spicy delicious Ghanaian meals, having a hard time getting used to American food because it is not as spicy.   


The next day, we met up with his friends on Harvard’s campus for dinner in one of the halls. We also went to a Jewish Passover, so it was a fun-filled night. The seating was boardroom-style with me seated right next to Kofi. It had been a pretty long day so I looked forward to dinner. We were first served with soup and afterwards there was a buffet. I struggled with the soup and signaled Kofi several times. He could tell I was really having a hard time.  Oh my days! Why was the soup so clear? Why was there no texture? It looked a bit like chicken noodle soup but that is not my favorite. It had some chicken in there and big chunks of carrots. I was not familiar with this. I couldn’t finish it. I am used to soups with a lot of texture. Back home in Ghana we have okra soup, textured with leaves and different kinds of meat and fish; there’s peanut butter soup with all the nutty flavor; and light soup with the aroma of goat meat.


“Why was the soup so clear? Why was there no texture?”


Everyone seemed to enjoy it, except me. To be fair, this is what they are used to. I bet they may struggle with Ghanaian food if they were ever to visit Ghana. Our food can be a bit spicy, which I realized is not an American thing. I took consolation in the fact that I had just arrived. Maybe I will get used to it? Thankfully, there was a buffet afterwards. I recognized rice, grilled chicken and some snacks. I would’ve left the dinner so hungry if not for these. 


At that point, I was convinced that Western food wasn’t for me, at least not yet. Prior to dinner, I had tried macaroni with cheese and tomato sauce and that didn’t go well. I had a tummy upset. The following day, Kofi suggested a grocery shop where I could find food products similar to the ones I got back at home. Thank God for HMart, an Asian store where I could get ingredients such as a particular peanut butter, rice and beef to prepare omo tuo with peanut butter soup, also known as groundnut soup.  What a relief! 


The omo tuo I cooked after tasting chicken soup for the first time in America


“At that point, I was convinced that Western food wasn’t for me…”


I started cooking when I was about eight years old. I grew up in a typical Ghanaian-Ewe home in Ho, Ghana where I saw my mum, Yvonne, cook everyday and she did it like it was art. The flavors, the dishes, everything was exceptional and unique. Her jollof was everyone's favorite. She cooked okra soup like it was a calling and she always added her own twist to it. She was always trying new recipes and I remember falling in love with her coconut rice and quite recently, her turmeric rice. Everyone loved her food and we had visitors every weekend for dinner. I loved a full house. I remember one Saturday evening where we had to do a lot of cooking because we were expecting about 10 to 15 guests. I helped my mum cook jollof, kenkey with shito and then bissap – a drink made from the species of the hibiscus flower. There was so much to eat and we played games after. Francis, one of the guests, jokingly said he would love to marry into this family one day to keep enjoying delicious meals and guess what, he indeed married my sister several years later. That night felt special. It was beautiful to see how food could bring people together in love and harmony.





In our home, we raised chickens and had a garden where we would get fresh produce such as tomatoes, habanero pepper and okra for cooking. My parents were in charge of the garden and my dad, Ralph, watered every evening. My mother took care of the garden during the day and it was something she absolutely enjoyed.  I was in charge of cleaning the hen coop and giving the poultry their first meal of the day. My dad cooked his favorite meals on Sundays and he did it with so much passion. Oh, how I love his kelewele! It had the right proportions of ginger and garlic and it was always crispy! It was my favorite “dessert” on a Sunday evening. During one of those evenings, my dad was reminiscing about his early adulthood and how he was such a great chef and I still think he is – peanut butter soup is his speciality. My parents were childhood friends so they have stories for days. It’s very interesting to hear about life back in the day. Sunday evenings were very relaxing. My mum told stories of how she started cooking at a very young age because her mother was a trader and was mostly away from home. All her siblings are good cooks. 


“It was beautiful to see how food could bring people together in love and harmony.”


I got my culinary skills from my parents. As an artist, I love to get creative with food too. I practically have a PhD in cooking jollof rice as well as okra soup. I added my own special touch to my mother’s recipe – continuous innovation. Cooking Ghanaian dishes can be time consuming but it is always worth it. I love to blend my spices in bulk to minimize the stress of the next cooking batch. Growing up, I had Ghanaian food everyday and I just fell in love with it. The bold flavors,  the variety and how nutritious they are! Low blood level? Take a lot of leafy soups. Fever? Get yourself warm light soup with goat meat. Want to boost your immune system? Beans and plantain to the rescue.





“I practically have a PhD in cooking jollof rice as well as okra soup.”

A week later after the unpleasant chicken soup incident, I visited my cousin in New York. I had told her about my struggles with the food in America so far and she took me to an Asian restaurant in Manhattan to try fried rice. It was so good and it tasted just like Ghanaian fried rice. That gave me some hope.


Later that year in August, I moved to Chicago to pursue a Master’s degree in Entrepreneurship for Creatives at Columbia College but I didn’t have high expectations about finding good food. My sister, Etornam, who had lived previously in the States, suggested some Ghanaian supermarkets where I could go grocery shopping and I couldn’t have been more grateful. A Plus store, Makola and Kaneshie supermarket are my favorite stores to get the ingredients I need for my Ghanaian dishes. They’re on the northside of Chicago where you can find quite a number of Ghanaians. These stores are pretty big and feel like mini markets. You will find everything Ghanaian there. At Makola supermarket I get momoni (fermented salted fish). At Kaneshie supermarket, I can find corn and cassava dough. At A Plus Store, I can buy goat meat for $14.






But it is quite surprising that even with all the needed ingredients, there is still this Ghanaian taste that is missing. It just doesn’t taste the same. The palm oil in America smells and tastes different. The ginger isn’t spicy enough. And, I think the tomatoes taste a bit different, too.  


“At A Plus Store, I can buy goat meat for $14.”


If there is anything I love about Chicago, I would say it’s the diverse community we have here. I have met a lot of Ghanaians and it is always a happy time whenever we meet. Chicago is a very lively city and there is always an event happening. Ghanafest is an annual event that celebrates Ghana’s rich culture and history. There is always lots of food – waakye, fufu, jollof, kelewele, etc. –  and it feels just like home. I am quite an introvert but whenever I step out into Ghanaian spaces, one thing is for sure, I am definitely having my kenkey with fried fish and pepper. 


I went to Ghana for the summer holidays in 2023 and I made sure to eat all my favorite meals before returning to Chicago. My mum made my favorites: kenkey with pepper and fish, fufu with light chicken soup and I also had banku with okra soup at Aduanipa, a restaurant in East Legon in Accra. 







And I wasn’t finished eating yet. Even on the way to the Kotoka International Airport where I went to board my flight, I ate banku with pepper and grilled tilapia while stuck in traffic. Nowhere like home indeed.


The banku and tilapia I ate before my flight back to Chicago


“The palm oil in America smells and tastes different. The ginger isn’t spicy enough.”

Now that I am back in Chicago, I am trying to adjust to the food here. Most often, I order a burger with fries at McDonald’s when I’m out. At least, that’s easy. I have also tried chicken and beef biryani from Maharaj Indian Grill and I like it. It tastes almost like the rice dishes back in Ghana. Once in a while, I try a new meal. So far, I’ve tried macaroni and cheese, Buffalo wings, cheese sandwich and chicken and waffles but none of these quintessentially American dishes can be compared to my banku and assorted okra soup.






Genevieve Avornyo is a creative entrepreneur based in Chicago, Illinois. She enjoys traveling and photography.


Twitter: @a_shorks

Instagram: @a_shorks





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Guest
Sep 22, 2023

So true ! I do not care for the palm oil here. There is no palm taste to it as back home. I just use red bell pepper to color my soup to give the red color .

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delamax94
Sep 22, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I miss Sister Vi's food and her bissap.

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Guest
Sep 22, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Lovely write up. Thanks for projecting our culture.

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Guest
Sep 21, 2023

You are right, no food taste better than a hot spicy okra soup with a freshly made banku. I can't wait to visit home again.

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Guest
Sep 21, 2023

Great piece. Home is home. Hahaha. Shedding our true disposition is a herculean task.

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