How One Plant Unites Two Continents

Jenna is a young expectant mother who lives in Sioux Falls, SD. After immigrating to the US at age 14, she and her sister were the only family members who were granted refugee status from war-torn Sierra Leon. Her father died from the war when Jenna was very young and after several interviews with the UN, her situation was dire enough to grant permission for them to leave their family and travel to Sioux Falls. Now that she is a single working mother, she requested permission for her mother to travel here and help with child care. Despite multiple e-mail requests Jenna, her family and I have written, we have heard nothing about progress in the case. Jenna is due to deliver in two weeks. She continues to work at Citibank without much hope her mother will attend the delivery.

Soon after arriving to South Dakota, Jenna met her now long-time Liberian friend Secret, who also immigrated with refugee status to the US from her own distraught country.

I met Jenna as an OB patient and gained increasing respect for her quiet and respectful demeanor. I was planning my summer garden and asked at a routine OB appt, what comfort foods reminded them of home. Without hesitating, both Jenna and Secret explained they eat Potato Leaf Soup on Rice regularly.

“Did you know that potatoes have leaves”? Secret asked me, pulling up a potato leaf image on her smart phone.

“Oh yes!  I plant potatoes every year, but didn’t know the leaves were good to eat”!

Breaking every etiquette and professional rule learned from my parents, medical school and beyond, I invited myself over to their home. They said all I needed to bring was the sweet potato leaves and they would have the rest.

DSC_0716Yesterday was the big day! My leaves were looking big and healthy despite a lack of potatoes to harvest down below. Armed with a grocery sack full of the secret ingredient, my daughters and I showed up on their front door… and Jenna held back her laughter. These looked NOTHING like what they eat.  We would have to travel to the nearest grocery store that sells them- an Asian Market in Sioux Falls- and purchase the correct type. “Asians and Africans eat most of the same foods” Jenna and Secret explained. The nearest African grocery store is in Minneapolis.

We picked up three bags of the fresh greens and rushed back to Secret’s home to get started. First leaf and stem are removed from the central stalk. Align the stems together and start shredding entire stem to leaf in pot to cook later.


I noticed their fridge was nearly empty, however, bulk meats, oil, seasonings and rice filled the freezer and cupboards. Large cuts of chicken, beef and shrimp were defrosted in warm water. Skin and fat were gently removed and ready to simmer on the stove.

Next we added water to cover meat, added 1/8 sliced onion and two cubes of seasoning. Meat simmered until meat tenderized and almost all water has boiled off.

In another skillet, add vegetable oil and heat. Add another 1/8 sliced onion, two whole orange jalepenos (this is NOT optional according to Jenna) and another seasoning cube to the potato greens. Add the mixture to the oil and sauté while the meat cooks.

You can only imagine how wonderful Secret’s kitchen smelled as the kids played in the town home’s central courtyard and we three made small talk at the table. I asked Jenna why her insistence to include jalepenos in the dish.

I asked- “You couldn’t possibly tolerate spice being 38 weeks into your pregnancy… I mean, I couldn’t eat tomato sauce or drink OJ the 18 months of my pregnant life”.  I craved the bland diet of dry toast and vanilla ice cream. In contrast, Jenna’s breakfast was sautéed jalepenos and hard boiled eggs on rice. She craves potato leaf soup, with extra spice, and gets grouchy if she goes too long without it. Impressive.


I could choose my type of rice. “Parboiled, jasmine or broken?” they wanted to know. Steam up your favorite rice. Combine the meat and potato leaf mixtures. Pour the soup on the rice and try not to lick your plate.

I’m already craving the Potato Leaf Soup on Rice- although I’ll stick with two jalepenos at a time. I’m not as tough as Jenna!

We left the town home with a meal shared and kids asking when we would see each other again. Secret showed me how the discarded central stems can be replanted for more leaves later in the season. I haven’t learned my professional lesson well. With persistence from her physician and time, I hope to host Jenna’s mother, daughter and her at my home for South Dakota-grown potato leaf soup. In the meantime, I have no doubt Jenna’s strength and perseverance will serve her incredibly well. She certainly has inspired me.


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