One college student is bringing the taste of home to West Africans in Kansas City
West African food can be hard to find in Kansas City, so Omowumi Akinjole started a catering business. Recently, she’s been busy filling holiday orders.
Yet for Nigerians in particular, the calendar revolves around roasting a meal around an open fire.
One woman is determined to bring that smoky taste of home to Nigerians transplanted into Kansas City.
Omowumi Akinjole moved to the U.S. from Lagos, Nigeria, in 2013 for college. That’s when she started to dabble in cooking traditional West African food. As a child attending boarding school in Nigeria, she wasn’t around to learn from her mother. But once she arrived in the United States, Akinjole, now 26, says learning to cook helped with the culture shock.
Through her cooking, Akinjole has built a community of her own, more than 6,000 miles from her home that caters to the tastes of the 1,200 or so Nigerians who’ve settled in the Kansas City area.
The first thing she remembers making — meat pies — was a bust.
“It was horrible, and so that really motivated me as well like, ‘How can I get this right?’” Akinjole said. “I thought, ‘I can do this. It’s not rocket science.’”
So she learned to cook by watching YouTube videos. By 2016, she was preparing Nigerian snacks or appetizers for her friends at church and school. They even paid her for it.
Akinjole is now pursuing a doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences and chemistry at The University of Missouri-Kansas City. She didn’t seriously consider a food business until the pandemic hit.
“Everyone would say, ‘This is the right time, do it! What are you scared about? You just have to do it and then just see how it goes,’” she said. “So COVID happened and there was so much time on our hands, you know. I thought it was the perfect time.”
Akinjole named her business Victoria’s Kitchen after her middle name and her mother’s first. Besides, her professors and fellow students had trouble pronouncing her first name.
On a mild December day, Akinjole shopped at her favorite place — the River Market. Despite the general lack of Nigerian restaurants in the area, she’s able to find traditional African ingredients here. Plus, the open air market reminds her of markets in Nigeria.
Most African food available in Kansas City is Ethiopian or comes from other East African countries, Akinjole said.
East and West African foods taste very different. Akinjole said that while the staple dishes — varying types of rice, stew and soup — are similar, the spices aren’t.
“East Africa and, I think, in Kenya, their cooking style is kind of similar to Persian culture. They cook with a lot of cloves and cinnamon, and kind of pepperminty spices,” she said. “But for West Africa, we cook a lot with thyme, ginger and garlic. There’s some similarities, but I’m not gonna cook with cinnamon.”
One of Akinjole’s signature dishes, jollof rice, is extremely popular in West Africa, especially for holidays or parties. It is heavily spiced, rich — and time consuming. She makes it by blending tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and habanero peppers together to make a base. Later, she cooks the rice in that concoction. Fried onions and tomato paste are added to the base, along with the rice and a variety of spices, including thyme, bay leaves and fresh ginger.
For holidays or parties, jollof rice is traditionally cooked on a fire to add a smoky flavor. To achieve a similar flavor without open flames, Akinjole cooks the rice on the stove. When it’s finished, she covers the pot and turns the burner all the way up to high and lets it “smoke” for a few minutes. But no recipe. It’s all in her head. A pinch of this, a little more of that.
Oruaroghene Edeogho orders from Victoria’s Kitchen once or twice a month. Akinjole’s food reminds her of home, of Nigeria. Edeogho said that jollof rice is hard to make, and easy to mess up.
A lot of people over dilute it, Edeogho said, or don’t add enough spices to get that signature flavor.
“Cooking is really different for everybody,” Edeogho said. “The jollof rice, for example. I would cook rice and even though I follow the same procedure as Victoria, it would still come out different.”
A taste of home for students studying abroad
Akinjole recently catered a dinner at Edeogho’s home. The diners were mostly college students or recent graduates, a demographic Akinjole caters to often. She said there is something about being young and away from home that makes a person crave familiar food.
Food, culture and memories, she insists, go hand in hand. A lot of her clients have not been able to visit home in West Africa for years, even decades, so they come to her.
“Man, it’s rough out here, you know, not having good food. But I would say it’s just that feeling of home,” she said. “You don’t miss that home that much if you can get something close, it’s not even 100% but it’s very, very close. And you feel like you have a community that caters to your needs.”
Akinjole’s younger brother, Victor, moved to the U.S. in 2018 to attend UMKC. He shares a two-bedroom apartment downtown with Akinjole where she does all of her cooking. And those aromas, those special flavors take him home.
“Having moved to the United States, there’s not a lot of my cultural food,” Victor said. “So being able to complement that goes a long way to remembering my roots basically, and appreciating my culture.”
Akinjole has not visited Nigeria in more than five years. Her own mother, who inspired a lot of her cooking, has never tried her food. Akinjole hopes when the pandemic winds down, her parents will be able to come for a visit. She doubts her mom will let her do all the cooking, but she is excited to show her parents her skills. Her parents show the Instagram page for Victoria’s Kitchen to friends and family in Nigeria.
Yet no season makes Akinjole homesick more than Christmas. The last holiday she spent in Nigeria was in 2013.
While Akinjole says American Christmas focuses heavily on decorations and gifts, Nigerian Christmas features massive group gatherings and cooking outside on an open fire. The season is all about togetherness.
“It’s always really nice. I really miss that about holidays at home,” says Akinjole. “Just seeing a bunch of people together you know, cooking and chit chatting.”