I come from a family of cooks. In my native Angola, my relatives would make traditional Angolan and Congolese dishes like Fumbwa, a wild spinach stew, and Pondu, a stew made from cassava leaves, which we sometimes called saka saka or feuille de manioc in French.
When I moved in Maine in 2015, I craved these comforts from home — and the familial bonds of sharing them together.
Sadly, I’d never really learned the art of cooking myself, so I was always eager to accept when friends invited me over for a meal or offered to share a recipe that reminded me of home.
But even then, finding culturally appropriate ingredients in Maine was challenging.
If I traveled to Portland, I could sometimes find Fu- Fu, a sticky dough-like dish that’s as common in Angola as potatoes or rice is elsewhere. But other foods like Ngai ngai (leaves from Rosella shrubs that are similar to hibiscus), Makayaby (salted fishes) and Makelele (grasshoppers) were harder to come by. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one craving these foods.
In 2014, an Angolan woman named Maria Zombo arrived in Maine with her five children. Like me, she’d fled political persecution; her family had ties to an independence movement in their small northern province of Cabinda and became government targets. When she arrived here, a caseworker helped her get situated in a local shelter and access general assistance benefits.
But she was lonely and especially missed the joyful family meals where her extended family would laugh and talk over dishes like Muamba de Galinha (a popular chicken stew) and Kizaka (a vegetarian dish made of cassava leaves stewed in finely ground peanuts).
After 10 months, Maria’s work permit was approved, and she quickly landed a job at a Cajun food restaurant in Portland.
She not only made enough money to move the family into their own home, but to allow her husband, Andre, who’d been working for an oil company overseas — to reunite with them here.
For the first time since fleeing Angola, Maria and Andre had the time and resources to think about the future they wanted to build in their new country.
They’d met other African asylum seekers through their Portland church. And when those families gathered to share meals and swap stories, the conversation would inevitably turn to some African produce or ingredient that they all missed.
It wasn’t just that people longed for the taste of cassava leaves and baobab flowers but that they needed the comfort these foods provided.
They craved that connection to the past — to the lives they’d once lived and been forced to abandon.
That gave Maria an idea. In October 2021, the couple opened Maria Grocery Store in Biddeford. They stock their shelves with cassava leaves and baobab flowers of course, as well as other hard-to-get ingredients, like various Africa peanuts, Mbisi Yako Kawuka (smoked or dried catfish) and Chikwangue/ Kwanga (a nutritious paste that’s consumed like bread). But since opening their doors just over a year ago, they’ve been surprised by the clientele. “It’s not even an African store,” Andre tells me, “because people come from all over.”
The couple can’t even count the number of native Mainers who come into their store inquiring about casava leaves specifically.
Many Americans already know how to cook the stews and other dishes the plant is used for. But others are simply curious. That’s allowed Maria and Andre to honor their African heritage and connect with their American-born neighbors.
Sharing her recipes and tips is one of Maria’s favorite parts of the job. “We are feeding the community,” she says. It’s a wonderful example of the value that Americans are finding in immigrant and refugee-owned businesses.
Maria and Andre are eager to grow their business, but their immigration status has proven a challenge.
To expand their inventory beyond their U.S. suppliers would require them to travel abroad. But they can’t leave the country while their asylum case is being processed.
It’s already been eight years since they filed the paperwork, but they have yet to receive a response.
“We are frustrated that we own a home and a business, that our children are in school here, and we still have no permanent status,” Andre said.
Not only are Maria and Andre giving New Mainers a taste of home, they are offering their U.S.-born neighbors a taste of a different culture. For that and many other reasons, it would be a terrible loss for Maine if their asylum request is ultimately denied.
After all the efforts they’ve made to improve community relations, Marie, Andre and their children deserve better. America should welcome them, just as Maria and Andre have welcomed America into their hearts — and into their grocery store.
Héritier Nosso is a health promotion coordinator and community organizer in Lewiston.