At the heart of two of Ivy Garsjø’s most vivid childhood memories are plantain chips.
She is about six-years-old and in Ghana, the country of her birth. She’s sitting squished inside a trotro—one of the tooting, zippy, often brightly painted little bus-taxis that are the most popular form of local transport—with her gran. She’s feeling poorly, recovering from yet another bout of malaria. They’re en route to Accra, the capital, to visit her mom and dad, who are both students there.
Apart from these weekend and holiday trips to Accra, little Ivy lives with her gran in the smaller, calmer, cooler city of Koforidua, a couple of hours away.
When the trotro stops in a traffic jam, her gran buys her bag of plantain chips from a young woman with a baby strapped to her back—one of a number of young girls and women who converge on the filled-to-capacity vehicle whenever it stops.
As the six-year-old munches her way through the savory treat, she starts to feel better. Noticing her perking up and looking more energized, her grandmother smiles and hugs her.
As she has at other times, the child wonders out loud to her grandmother, “Who are these women and girls who carry the heaped bags of chips on their heads? Where do they live? And those others with them, selling plastic bottles of ice water?”
Her grandmother’s answer is always the same. “If you do not study hard and finish your schooling, you will end up selling plantain chips and ice water on the streets.”
Around the World—to Ivy’s Chips
Fast forward plus or minus 30 years.
Garsjø said her farewells to Ghana not too many trotro rides later when her dad was awarded a scholarship to study in England. The family moved to Oxford.
She remembers quickly settling into the cosmopolitan diversity of the historic university city. “I had a well-rounded upbringing there,” she recalls. “I was fortunate to be surrounded by people from various cultures and ethnicities.”
There were corresponding culinary adventures that “excited my taste buds and created curiosity as I tasted spices and flavors new to me and so very different from the Ghanaian dishes I would eat at home.” More about that to come.
Meanwhile, she completed high school in Oxford and enrolled at Birmingham University, also in the U.K. There, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business finance and tourism followed by a master’s in human resource management. Then she enrolled at the city’s prestigious Aston Business School for her business administration degree.
Flip back to her second year at Birmingham University. Enter a Norwegian man, a fellow student, destined to seal her heart-fate. Gaute Garsjø is adventurous. He has by then already lived in Costa Rica (to study Spanish). She is attracted to his wanderlust and openness to possibilities, people and culinary adventuring. Together they seek out people and eateries that reflect the city's amazing diversity and shop for fresh ingredients at Birmingham’s acclaimed Bull Ring Market. On weekends they recreate some of the global dishes they’re discovering.
By the time they both graduate with their advanced degrees, they are married and their eldest son is born. It is this nuclear family that moves to a job Gaute is keen to take in rural Thailand.
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More on the Thailand adventure to come.
For now, enough to say that after five years and with their second son still a baby, they relocated to “the land of oil, gas and brown cheese,” a.k.a. “tough Norway,” to quote Garsjø. “The winters are cold and dark. The weather impacts people’s moods. In summertime, there is a transformation. Everyone is happy!”
They both take jobs in Stavanger. Garsjø, not yet fluent in Norwegian, settles for a job in sales and purchasing in the oil and gas industry.
“After five years, in 2015, the company I was working for closed.” At which point she launches her own business, a “Supper Club.” The concept is a monthly dinner with a menu highlighting African cuisine from different African countries.
During the exploration phase, she takes her first trip back to Ghana since leaving there as a child. They go as a family: Garsjø and Gaute and their four sons. The youngest, the Norwegian-born twins, are now six.
“It struck me that the children had the same connection with the plantain sellers on the streets of Accra that I had as a kid. Most importantly, they loved those plantain chips, as I had. They repeatedly asked why we didn't have them in Norway. Seeing their interest—and knowing how our Norwegian friends would rave about the plantain chips I made and served at dinner parties—well, this is how Ivy’s Chips was born.”
Were it Only That Easy!
It’s Friday and Garsjø and I have a Skype date. I've read her replies to my 20 emailed questions. Now to meet her in the virtual flesh. I am in Durban, South Africa. She is in Norway; in Jørpeland, a small town located on a fjord about 45 minutes by ferry from Stavanger, Norway’s third largest city and a well-known culinary hot-spot.
“We have to take the ferry or a smaller fast boat to get there,” she says. However, an under-fjord tunnel is being built and in October she will be among 3,000 people running a half-marathon planned to open the tunnel officially.
I learn this during our chat, which lasts for more than an hour—during which time I get to meet the twins and vicariously share a bag of Ivy’s Chips. I also hear that hubby Gaute, out playing basketball with their middle son, is “the best plantain chip slicer in the world.” He is also her partner in the hand-crafting, production and distribution of Ivy’s Chips. His talents for this exceed those of his day job as a finance and investment advisor.
That he commutes by ferry each day makes him responsible for picking up the plantains ordered through an international food emporium in Stavenger. In turn, he delivers the bags of Ivy’s Chips when they’re ready to outlets that retail them.
Had we tried to connect on a different Friday, Gaute and Garsjø might have been busy making chips. The kitchen they use is at the school where Garsjø works as a middle school teacher; her day job which she loves.
In the kitchen, masked up for hygiene, Gaute slices, Garsjø fries. Speed, perfection, uniformity and good health are key. Passion, she says, gives them drive and energy. They experimented together to come up with the perfect texture and the ideal packaging, cellophane so you can see the golden plantain curls encased in a sleeve for protection, distribution and branding.
Garsjø is delighted to tell me that they recently passed Norway’s rigorous health and safety standards with flying colors after an intense all-day standardized “test.”
Chipping Toward Empowering Women
Future plans include growing their own plantains on farms in Ghana that will support female empowerment through job creation.
That the plantain chips are a family affair that goes beyond Garsjø and Gaute’s involvement becomes clear during our chat. Production coincides with visits from mother-in-law Audgunn Oltedal, a Norwegian women’s rights activist, feminist and erstwhile TV news presenter who regularly travels from the capital, Oslo, with her husband to visit—and takes back product orders to Ivy’s Chips suppliers there.
Garsjø took her in-laws with her on her most recent visit to Ghana in 2017, when they went to explore future plans for Ivy’s Chips.
“I got to introduce my in-laws not only to my gran but also to authentic local dishes including banku (a cornmeal dish) and garri (involving roasted cassava flour). Also boiled yams and palaver stew (with spinach and watermelon seeds) and light goat soup, which many people eat every night before bed and bofrot (donuts), which they loved.
“And I took a trip to Makola Market in Accra with my mother-in-law where she purchased gorgeous fabrics, which she made into beautiful cushion covers we have in our living room.
“While I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively, there’s something special about Ghana that makes me feel I’ve come home. Even though most people laugh at me when I speak Twi (a dialect of the Akan language spoken in southern and central Ghana by several million people) and call me obroni (“white person”) occasionally, I still feel welcomed and complete when I touch the ground in Ghana.”
Garsjø speaks to her gran back in Ghana about three times a week. “She’s 84—young-old—always full of ideas.” Her dad, a general practitioner who moved with her mom to North Carolina many years ago, died suddenly in 2017. Her mom, a retired midwife, takes care of Ivy’s brother, who has cerebral palsy. Her mom doesn’t travel much but from the U.S. is helping with the search for the right place to farm the plantains.
Garsjø, meanwhile, is president-elect of her Norwegian Rotary club, which recently launched a project in the northern Volta region of Ghana: a facility offering an all-inclusive education for disabled children, a project she says is, thanks to her brother, close to her heart.
When in Thailand
Garsjø will tell you, if you probe, that her culinary passion has a history. As the oldest of four children, she would sometimes get to cook for the family. A fond memory from Oxford is of her mom leaving jollof rice, a kind of stew, ready on the stove for when Garsjø and her three younger siblings finished school.
Another, perhaps fonder one, is of jogging around the center of Oxford in her high school days with a friend and intentionally bypassing the restaurant of a south-east Indian pupil's parents “who would spoil us with snacks and sweets that were totally different in taste from what I was used to at home.” This helped develop her palate and stirred her interest in flavor.
Birmingham, as mentioned, was a curious foodie’s nirvana.
Then came Thailand. When she first arrived, she felt she had landed in cultural and culinary hell. Hubby Gaute’s job, initially, was in the village of Pak Nam Pran, described online as being “in the middle of nowhere,” and Ivy hated everything about it.
“I had forgotten what it was like living in a developing country. The food upset my stomach. People would come up and rub my skin with a white cloth, curious to see if I was so dirty the color would rub off. Once at a job interview, I gave the woman my resume. She looked at me and started laughing. She laughed for so long, I started to leave. It turned out she was amazed someone so dark could speak English.
“I realize it was naivety and ignorance, not malicious. But with the heat and no friends or language, I hated it there.”
Until a Thai woman befriended her. “She had lived abroad and took on the role of educating me about the culture. She took me to restaurants where you would never encounter a foreigner and got me sampling dishes that blew my mind. I tasted flavors that were amazing, fresh—and the most wonderful part, my stomach settled.”
One thing Garsjø didn't like was the Thai plantain chips. “I would buy them to nibble on when sampling the local beers. But they were so sweet, I ditched them for fried bugs, dried fermented meats and a kind of raw fish and crab salad that was delicious.”
The dining experiences helped her learn some Thai and overcome her culture shock.
So much so that when they moved to a more “developed” town, Hua Hin, she secured herself a teaching post in the hospitality and tourism department of Stamford International University (not to be confused with Stanford University, California).
After three years as a lecturer, she was promoted to head of the department, “which was an achievement because I was often made aware that I was both the first Black woman to have worked at the university and the first to have gotten to that level.”
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The university holidays gave the family lots of time to travel in Asia. Now she says, a week without two Asian dinners is unheard of in their home. On another night they might have kumla, traditional Norwegian potato balls, or karbonada, much-loved Norwegian meatballs, although both these dishes she likes best when prepared by her mother-in-law on visits to their Oslo home.
Interestingly, Ivy says she learned to love Thailand so much that she would have stayed there forever. However, Gaute never truly adapted and after five years persuaded her that the family should move to Norway.
All their travels, she says, have taught them that adventure and risk make life rich and interesting. Ghana is on the horizon at some point in the future, at least for a couple of years, because they know they will need to live there to get the plantain farms they envisage established and running.
The big-picture future vision is the transformation of Ivy’s Chips from a healthy and delicious Norwegian “out-of-Africa” treat to an international brand, available throughout the U.S. and the U.K. A brand that, along the way, empowers and supports Ghanaian women and makes a difference.