Credit: Anjali Pinto

Francine Maombi, 30, settled in Chicago a little more than a decade ago. She and her family spent years fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at various times sheltering in Rwanda or Burundi. When she arrived here she put down roots in Rogers Park, joining the Mennonite Living Water Community Church. Last year she found herself in need of part-time work that would allow her to continue caring for her two small children at home. That’s when Living Water’s Autumn Williams approached her about coming on board the church’s catering company, Urban Tables, which cooks for large events and provides weekly meals for pickup for busy families. Over the last year Maombi has learned to cook American, Thai, Italian, Greek, Mexican, and soul food. She’s also taught her coworkers how to cook Congolese. On the day she spoke to the Reader she was preparing a spread for the caterer’s weekly stand at the Glenwood Sunday Market. It included rice, beans, stewed spinach, cabbage, beef soup, roasted chicken legs, lightly sweet doughnut-like fritters called mandazi (aka the Swahili bun), and fufu, the ubiquitous African cassava-flour staple that serves as the elastic vehicle for much of this hearty, homey food.

The war was back and forth, so we flew to Rwanda and then a few months come back. The way you go back and forth you lose everything you have. When the war started we went to [a] Burundi refugee camp. It was difficult because no family member was working. Sometime in morning you don’t know what you gonna eat at lunch. But somehow God opens the door. Sometime you just pray ‘God, we don’t know what we gonna eat tonight.’ And somehow you find something to eat. Some rice. Beans. Cabbage. Potato. Back home we have a lot [of] fresh fish and it costs less than here because we live nearby Lake Tanganyika.

The enemy come to kill us there. [One] night they kill 106 people. We didn’t want to stay in the refugee camp anymore because we were scared.

[My] anniversary is on March 29. So it’s like ten years and four, five months. I come with my mom, my three brothers. Most African families have a lot of kids. We had the smallest family in Africa.

That was very hard when we got here. We didn’t speak any English. We saw snow. I was excited for first time to see snow, but when I touch it I was like, ‘Oh no!’ ”

Credit: Anjali Pinto

That time we didn’t have a lot of people from my country [here]. My caseworker she just bring a small rice cooker and a lot of chicken, in the fridge. We eat meat but not much, so it was like very hard for us. Because we not used to eat plain rice.

When I get here I shop in [the] African store, but the more I learn the more I realize they are expensive. I learn which store is good on beef, which store is good on flour.

I been working here one year. When I started the same day [customers] request Congolese food. Congolese takes a long time to cook. We cook different than American. A lot of Americans eat canned food, but we don’t. We just like fresh.

When we cook Congolese, we are not really committed to seasoning stuff. Congolese is not much spicy. We make sure not too much oil, not too much seasoning. It’s simple. We are really committed to green stuff. Spinach. Cassava leaves. Only it takes a long time. I don’t cook high fires, fast fires. I cook slowly. We don’t want to eat a lot of meat.

We want people to learn so we can grow bigger than one person making Congolese food.

Credit: Anjali Pinto
Credit: Anjali Pinto

Africans, we are not familiar with frozen food. Anything we like to buy, we won’t keep frozen. I learned to cook more frozen things when I started working here. I use it but not much. You will look in my freezer and there is maybe frozen meat or frozen spinach or something, but not a lot. Sometimes we think the things we put in the freezer is not fresh. I put meat in there. Maybe ice in there and green stuff. I like to serve fresh but when we have a lot of people it’s hard. Congolese food takes a long time to cook. I have some dishes that take four hours, five hours, so it’s hard to serve fresh—but we have to cook ahead of time.

I don’t follow recipes. I know I have to put this much salt, this much oil. Congolese food, if I write it down that would be American food.

There are some people who are African—they don’t have time to cook. They are busy and they start eating American food. If we are cooking they can buy from us—or if American people want to taste what we make.

I started to learn American food because I don’t make American food at home. Here we cook a lot of different food, but I don’t have a favorite. Maybe pizza.

When my family comes I like to show them what I learn. I make different American things. Like pizza. Pies. Brownies. When we make brownies we say, ‘Ah, this is chocolate fufu.’ I show my mom I learn more than what she teaches me. Makes them happy.

I like to cook and I like to give my culture. I don’t want to forget how we were doing [it]. I have to show how back home it was like this. I enjoy that part—to let people know who I am or where I come from. Some people don’t like to do that because they think it don’t look good. It might not look to good to you, but it’s good to us.   v