Imagine an ice cream that represents the many and varied flavours of Africa. Made with no preservatives or additives, only home grown ingredients. This is what Tapi Tapi desserts are all about, but the concept behind it is not only ground breaking, it could very well become a way to shift our cultural and social perceptions.
Including flavours such as baobab pod, loquat, peanut butter and pumpkin or blue cheese with almonds, these frozen confections use taste and flavour to act as a cross-cultural exchange.
Tapi Tapi is the brainchild of molecular biologist Dr Tapiwa Guzha, who is also concluding a post-doctoral fellowship in genetics at Stellenbosch University. “Ice cream is universal; it makes people feel nostalgic,” says Tapiwa. “But in my context if I just had ice cream, there’s nothing special about it, but if I add these flavours it opens up another world, it has a special resonance for people who are from Africa.”
The name Tapi Tapi comes from the ChiShona word for “yummy” but only when it applies to sweet foods. The root of the word is tapira is a verb for ‘sweet’ and naturally it’s also a play on Tapiwa’s name. Made entirely by hand, these marvellous ice creams have been enjoyed by a diverse group of foodies who relate to the ingredients and recipes. Up until last year Tapiwa was making around 10 tubs a week from his home in Stellenbosch. This was entirely artisanal and boutique style, making direct deliveries on his motorcycle once a week. But now it’s time for an exciting new venture- the Tapi Tapi ice cream shop. The soft opening is being planned within the next couple of months, with the venue to be confirmed, most probably in the Salt River/Woodstock area. This will also be a creatively collaborative space between fellow African artists (including Tapiwa himself) from where impactful food events can be hosted with a wider reach.
As a lover of bacon ice cream, he loves to pair sweet with salty, umami and astringent flavours. Some of the more unusual flavours include mopane worms and a dried salt-cured fish called kapenta. On the familiar side of the spectrum are East-African spices and Cape Malay flavours such boeber, falooda and koesister with aniseed, coconut and cardamom. He reckons it comes down to: “How well do you understand the thing you wrangle?” The answer to this would be really well, because once you get the basics down pat – how the sugar and fat interacts with each other on a molecular level – the possibilities really are endless.
A Tapi Tapi signature flavour is an homage to a childhood classic. Nutritious black jack leaves, either fresh or dried, are eaten as a leafy green across the continent, usually braised in oil and served with pap. When tasting the blackjack leaf ice cream you may experience a pleasant fizziness accompanied by a herbaceous top note that is beautifully accentuated by the grassiness of the accompanying ingredient: olive oil. Next up is an ice cream made with an edible clay which is eaten all over Africa as a source of iron. This smooth grey clay makes for a subtle and equally smooth textured ice cream, beautifully flavoured with vanilla bean.
Imphepho (also known as kooi goed), is the core flavour for ice cream no 3. Traditionally used in ritual practices and medicine, you can also drink it as a tea to treat hypertension and headaches. Contentiously for some, it has never been used in any shape or form in the culinary world. Tapiwa usually completes this creation with a toasted maize crumb for added texture. Last up is a crowd pleaser – a sweet and tart tamarind ice cream. Vegan and dairy free, this frozen dessert is made with coconut milk and -cream and boasts a broad flavour profile. Surprisingly, tamarind is well known as an Asian ingredient but actually originates from Africa. And because it’s out of its usual (savoury) context, it tastes completely different. “It’s about creating flavours that mean something to people, and I get to share with you why it’s important,” he says. “It brings people closer to each other’s way of being in the world.”
Like all the best stories it all started with a grandmother. “I have always been into food from an early age, that’s what I got from my grandmother Gogo Gwatidzo. She didn’t do division of labour, everyone did all the household tasks together. You did your bit, all the time.” The two especially loved baking together, which is where Tapiwa’s life-long sweet tooth was formed. Many years later, while at varsity, he loved watching cooking shows, including MasterChef, which is where he saw someone making ice cream with dry ice for the first time. It was like a light bulb going off when he realised how easy it would be to use the leftover dry ice from the lab. Then in 2018 his grandmother passed away. Returning home to Zimbabwe for the funeral was a time for introspection, reminding him of his mortality. “It was a bit of a wakeup call, realising that it’s time to do what I really want to do. In the world of science I had done all I wanted to do, so it was time to change gears. I don’t believe in doing one thing for the rest of my life, that’s not me.”
Soon after returning to South Africa, he created the social media pages, made a mock-up of a logo, and told everyone: “This is what I’m doing now so I couldn’t back out”. It took a while to think about the angle, “It wasn’t enough to say: ‘It’s good because I made it.’” This resulted in a brief experiment with flavours inspired by cocktails. Although extremely popular, “it wasn’t doing anything for me because I don’t drink, it was gimmicky. I didn’t feel a connection to it”.
Then one day while eating at Pahari, a Zimbabwean restaurant in Salt River, he noticed some familiar groceries from back home on the shelves- his favourite brand of peanut butter and a popped maize cereal called maputi. Wondering what it would taste like in ice cream form, he experimented with a couple of batches until getting it just right. “I realised that, up to this moment, I had never tried an ice cream that tasted like the continent.” And so Tapi Tapi was born.
“Ice cream tastes like home, like your childhood,” he says, so even if you introduce unfamiliar flavours, it’s immediately accepted. “If I show someone some of the fruits from Zim, some of them are dried, or just a loquat by itself isn’t appealing, it looks a bit weird. But when you taste it as an ice cream, then you think, I like that, what is it? You get the flavour without the prejudice.”
What was quite surprising was realising how some of his fellow Africans reacted to what he calls the poverty food idea. “Some Africans will say, I know what you are talking about, I’ve made it in the world, I’m not going to eat that stuff anymore.” But this really is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater as these ingredients are of utmost cultural importance and have loads of health benefits. “We should be more proud of our African food heritage, and hold onto it,” he emphasises.
Tapiwa is obviously really passionate about his business as a project for social and cultural change. But another objective is to turn the tired old business model on its head; that of pushing your competitors out so you can make more money. “As much as this is important to me, my happiness and quality of life are far more important,” he emphasises. “I like to think that the business component of it keeps it alive but without losing the integrity of what it is – a way to make people think differently about so-called African flavours and ingredients.”
This is why he thinks of Tapi Tapi mainly as an educational tool. A key focus of the business has been hosting monthly events with other forward thinking businesses in the Cape Town area. This included the Yoga in the Park in partnership with Kafui Awoonor from Holding Space, a black-owned yoga space in Cape Town. These events focus on inspiring talks followed by lunch inspired by ingredients or methods that change the way traditional food is eaten or prepared.
“Part of the story I tell people at events is how easy it has been to start this whole process,” says Tapiwa. “To start the company, I did not spend any additional money, I just used all stuff I already had.” Counting himself fortunate in being both an academic and middle class (with no dependents) he says it’s a myth that you need lots of money or a social media machine to get a new venture off the ground. All he needed was a medium-priced cell phone and his own transport, the raw ingredients and some dry ice. And with social media being free, he does all the graphic design, styling and photography himself. “People are stuck on the I idea that they need to wait for the perfect day to start their dreams. But if you go too big too soon you can’t experiment and see if you like it. Starting slowly means you can align your business with who you are as a person.”
“All my friends were my first customers,” he recalls. He also urged people to review online as honestly and as much as possible. “If you make a quality product, you don’t have to convince people to buy again. I never phone someone up and say I’m collecting orders for the week, do you want anything?” In fact, this was the only challenge he encountered: to gently persuade people to “give a stranger R110 of your money and say I’ll pitch up with your order on Saturday”.
We can’t wait to try all of these creations at the new store. Some tricks up his sleeve will include the 1970s classic deep fried ice cream, with a twist, of course. He will also be serving a new take on the ice cream sandwich, a mash-up between the Botswana/South African classic magwinya (a lighter, sweeter version of vetkoek) and gnoccho fritto, deep fried pastry squares from Emilia-Romagna.
And just when you thought the ice cream was interesting enough, the sugar cones (made by Tapiwa himself) are a culinary sensation, to be paired with various ice creams to bring out different flavours. For example, an ice cream made with finger millet has a raw, creamy, slightly sour taste, but served in a cone made with toasted finger millet it brings out different flavours of the same ingredient. Apart from using wheat as a stabiliser, the sugar cones all include grains or tubers such as sorghum, maize and cassava.
“If it’s on the menu, it’s my favourite,” he says. “I don’t have the same comfort dish every time; so it’s the same with ice cream. I like variety.”
You can find the Tapi Tapi ice cream cafe at 76 Lower Main Road, Observatory in Cape Town.
Connect with @_tapi_tapi on Instagram, @tapitapidesserts on Facebook or email orders to firstname.lastname@example.org
The article above was published in Food & Home Entertaining magazine in 2109.