Natick’s Salimata Bangoura, 38, broke into the food business early. Growing up on the Ivory Coast, she sold fried plantains starting at 7 years old. She came to the Bronx as a teenager, helping her mom sell ginger drinks (after a slight “Home Alone”-style travel snafu; more on that later).
In 2018, she launched her own business, Dugu, in Medfield — but COVID-19 interfered. Now she runs Yamacu, specializing in ginger-based drinks in flavors like beet and cranberry, plus West African soups and stews prepared at Cambridge’s CommonWealth Kitchen’s prep and manufacturing space in Dorchester. Find her at 17 farmers’ markets throughout the area and soon at Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury. She’ll also appear at the CommonWealth Kitchen Food Show (www.commonwealthkitchen.org/foodshow) on Thursday, June 9, which focuses on female, immigrant, and minority entrepreneurs.
Tell me about what you do.
I make West African seasonal food and ginger drinks. These drinks are full of flavor. They are cold-pressed, with a fresh ginger base. They can be enjoyed straight out of the bottle; they can be used with seltzer or kombucha for flavor. I don’t drink alcohol myself, but a lot of my customers do, and they use them as mixers.
How did COVID affect your business plan?
I had opened the brick-and-mortar location in Medfield, and just a couple of months before becoming profitable, COVID happened. I had young children. I have little kids, 10, 8, and 6. It was insanity. I decided to stay home, and I shut down my restaurant as a result of the pandemic.
After I closed my restaurant, people kept asking me for the drinks. I had a couple of customers in particular who really depended on the ginger drink to get through whatever their day was. And so they kept hounding me!
Literally, with one customer, I became profitable overnight, just the ginger drinks, because there was a restaurant opening in Worcester. They ordered 200 bottles of ginger from me, and within two hours of opening their location, they sold out, and they called me. They said, ‘Can we have five or six bottles tomorrow?’
That’s how I ended up at CommonWealth Kitchen. … We still do a lot of farmers’ markets. Last year specifically, we focused only on farmers’ markets. Back in January, we started doing food again. We mostly do a line of soup, stews, and snack foods. If you really take West Africa as a region, you can subdivide it into two chunky groups. You have Ghana, Nigeria, there’s a lot of similarities. And then you have West African French-speaking countries, like Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire, where I was born and raised. These are similar cuisines, and so that’s where my focus is. We don’t do Jollof rice; I do things like chicken Yassa. I do grilled lamb and chicken. I do couscous salad.
How did you first get interested in food?
I grew up on the Ivory Coast, but I identify as Malian, because I think Mali is so cool. My mother is from Mali. My father is from Guinea. I moved to the US when I was 14 to join the rest of my family.
This is hard to believe: I started my cooking business when I was 7 years old. I had multiple iterations of this business. I started selling fried plantains right outside of my house. I started making patties, started selling fried yams, and a lot of snack foods. I’m one of nine children, and I grew up in a house where there were at least 15 kids at all times. We all had a morning and afternoon allowance. The little entrepreneur in me realized: That’s money! So instead of going to spend money at somebody else’s store, why not collect all the money every day, all day? That’s exactly what I did. I spent my entire childhood just starting different tiny little businesses selling powdered milk and sugar mix, selling mangoes, oranges, seasonal fruit, cooking plantains. I did that until I was 11 years old.
And then, from 11 to 14, I was left behind accidentally.
Excuse me: What?
Literally “Home Alone” happened to me in real life. I got left behind by accident. The rest of my family emigrated to the United States without me. It took two years to be able to join them.
Who took care of you?
We come from a culture where it’s very much extended family support. I had uncles and aunties around. [At 14], I arrived in New York City, the Bronx. I went into the Bronx, you know, to meet the rest of my family, to see my parents after all these years, and everybody’s there. The very next day, we started making ginger drinks. And I’m just like: ‘What are you doing, Mom? Why would you make ginger from Africa here?’ She’s like, ‘Oh, this is my business.’
And so, the next day, I’m dragging ginger drinks and carts all over the Bronx, and then we do it again every night. And I’m just like, ‘Oh my god, this cannot be my life in America. This cannot be reality.’ I just came to America to join my family, and I’m here making ginger drinks.
My family moved from New York to Flint, Michigan, that very summer. We stopped doing the ginger drink. My mother left her business; she was doing really well for herself. She was the first person to do that, because she realized that there was a community of Africans, from West Africa, who wanted this product. So she was catering to the West African community in the Bronx and Harlem.
When my mother left, other people realized, ‘Oh, we can make this, too.’ And so other businesses started to make it; restaurants needed it themselves. And now you have those successful companies in New York City who make this very same ginger drink. Ginger has always been a part of everything we do: anytime you have a party, anytime you have any sort of gathering, or just in the fridge. It’s just constantly part of our diet.
How would you describe West African food to someone who hasn’t tried it?
It’s a mix of soups and stews that we love to enjoy with rice. Rice is a big part of what we eat. There’s a lot of vegetables that we put in our stews. It’s really well-seasoned, flavorful stew. We focus a lot more on what the food tastes like, not so much on what it looks like.
I call [my food] fusion. Because as a child, I liked to eat with my eyes. And so I always said to my parents, I always said to my family: ‘I always try to make the food look really nice.’ I don’t like mixing or putting my stews on top of my rice. With my fusion, what I like to do is take our food in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire, and also take American food that I grew up with, and mix the two. It’s all in the seasoning and the method in which we present and prepare our food. I source locally. I work with a lot of local farms in the area to source as much as of the produce that I can.
The bulk of the ingredients, those are local, and probably seasonal, because I try to follow the seasons based on what my farmers are giving me.
How would you describe the Boston food scene, and how could it improve?
That’s a loaded one. I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about the Boston food scene, just because I really don’t know it that well — but coming from CommonWealth Kitchen and having access to the food that I have access to here, I’d say that it’s definitely up and coming. Things are not as accessible as New York City, where on every corner you find Dominican food, some sort of West African restaurant.
One thing that I think we could do better on is providing an opportunity for Bostonians to experience diverse food in one setting. I’m obsessed with cross-cultural pollination. I’m obsessed with taking food from different countries and different cuisines and bringing them together. And I think that this is something that Boston could do a lot more of, you know, because food is a bridge.
I don’t know if you know Paulette of Hapi African Gourmet. She’s from Cameroon. She’s an entrepreneur who has a peanut sauce. Paulette and I both do some farmers’ markets together. It’s mind-boggling to me that every supermarket has an aisle for water, literally dedicated to water. There are so many brands of water in one entire space. And you have two African women in one farmers’ market, and people start losing their mind. They are literally so confused that market managers have [told] me that I can’t sell my food, because Paulette is already selling food and we’re both from Africa.
Africa is a continent. It is an entire continent of 54 countries. She’s from Cameroon. I’m from Mali. That’s something that really bothers me, and I hope that improves for people because it really is toxic, and it’s not healthy, and it’s just absolutely ignorant, in my opinion. There’s multiple bakeries in one farmers’ market. But you have two women from West Africa at one market? I don’t understand it.
What are your favorite restaurants?
I’m a homebody. I eat at home. My mother-in-law is Jewish. She’s your quintessential Jewish mom who loves to cook and loves to feed people, and I take full advantage of that. But Jamaica Mi Hungry is one of my favorite restaurants.
Bean fritters. It’s like bean falafel. It’s all healthy, and it’s all vegan.
I love “Altered Carbon”— and I love “Bridgerton.”
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.