He’s tired of seeing people eat chocolate ice-cream. And boring old strawberry don’t even get him started on that one.
What Tapiwa Guzha serves up at Tapi Tapi ice-cream parlor in Cape Town is a lot less vanilla in every sense of the word.
Flavors range from mopani worm, seaweed, fynbos, and baobab to dried fish mixed with toffee, and he’s on a mission to inspire his customers to be a little more adventurous with their ice cream choices.
A sign on the wall of his shop puts it all into perspective. It reads, “Our flavors are not weird! We’ve all been socialized into believing Eurocentric food should be the global norm,” he says.
He’s made more than 1 000 different types of exotic African ice-cream since he opened his business in 2018, and his favorites are those he refers to as his disruptive flavors. I love the flavors that make people feel uncomfortable instinctively.
The ones that when I read it on the menu, it doesn’t sound good, but when they taste it, it tastes good, Tapiwa (36), who hails from Zimbabwe and has a PhD in molecular biology, tells us. It disrupts how people perceive flavors and its only disruptive because the base ingredient is savory.
On the day of our visit there are seven flavors on offer, including an intriguing hibiscus and blackjack combo, and one that contains amasi. But after listening to all that Tapiwa has to say, I feel obliged to opt for the most adventurous flavor on the list: the toasted masonja cake.
“Its sweet and has the texture of a typical dessert if I hadn’t known that this was the one made from crushed mopani worms, I’d never have guessed. Its delicious and I’d happily order it again, but the ice-cream that I really think is out of this world is the rooibos and turmeric it’s a spicy bit of heaven. Making ice-cream is really very simple,” Tapiwa says. “You only need milk, sugar, cream, a stabilizer, and then flavor it as you wish.”
It’s the flavoring part where the creativity comes in, and he delights in conjuring up combos that will surprise his customers.
He started out selling ice-cream in fused with alcohol and other fermented ingredients, but felt he was still missing the mark. I wanted to offer more exotic flavors.
A month later, “I saw a store selling Zimbabwean food and groceries, he recalls. I saw popped maize and cereal and had a light bulb moment thinking about how these flavours would work in ice cream.”
He bought a few ingredients, went home and started experimenting and was blown away by the results. That was the first time that ice cream, beyond being delicious, felt like something.
It connected with my childhood and identity and felt like a taste of home. Tapiwa’s upbringing in rural Zimbabwe plays a big part in how he creates his dishes. He has fond memories of the farm-to-table lifestyle in the village of Chiweshe where he grew up, and the meals that his family would prepare using home-grown produce.
“We were raised by our grandparents and always ate the way they did in the village, even when we moved to the city,” Tapiwa says. Even living in the capital, Harare, his family grew their own okra, maize, tomatoes, beans, peas and peanuts and reared their own rabbits and chickens.
When Tapiwa was 18, he moved to South Africa to begin his tertiary education. He studied molecular biology for nine years, earning his PhD from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2014, which he followed with a post-doctoral fellowship in plant biotechnology at Stellenbosch University.
“I always knew I wanted to study biology because I was curious about life and how it works,” he says.
He cooked for himself throughout his studies, experimenting with various culinary techniques and flavor combinations.
When he saw a contestant preparing ice-cream on an episode of MasterChef Australia in 2008, Tapiwa was inspired to try making his own. The contestant used dry ice on the show and I had a light bulb moment.
“The lab I worked at received a lot of deliveries on dry ice, but it would be discarded after use, he recalls. I asked them to keep it for me each time we had a delivery.”
When he started, he was his own guinea pig. He didn’t share his ice-cream with anyone until he was entirely happy with what he’d created.
“By the time anyone tasted it, it was already good. I always took it to the lab and showed them what I’d done with the dry ice I took the day before,” Tapiwa says.
He can’t remember the first flavor he tried to make.
“It’s been so long, but my attitude around it has changed. I’m less precious about perfection and more focused on enjoyment.”
Over the years he’s created every flavor under the sun, including rooibos, sour fig and clay fudge and says he’s never encountered any ingredient that didn’t work in ice cream.
“There is only failure from a technical perspective. Sometimes when working with a new ingredient, I underestimate its potency. I don’t use recipes when I create or develop flavours. When I tried Moringa for the first time, it took a few attempts, but I got it right eventually.”
Contrary to popular belief, Tapi Tapi wasn’t named after Tapiwa, but is a play on the word kutapira, which means sweetness in his home language, Shona.
Within a month of deciding to make the move away from alcoholic infusions to focus on exotic African flavors, he hosted an ice-cream tasting event with nine courses and flavours inspired by nine different Zimbabwean ingredients.
“People engaged and connected with flavors and that was when I realized this isn’t a gimmick it’s a useful way to have conversations around food and an educational tool to connect with people.”
As his business grew, he was able to employ three staff members to help him run it.
“But it’s been a bumpy ride,” he says.
When Tapiwa started his business in 2018, he only offered ice-cream deliveries.
In February 2020, he opened a physical store in the Cape Town suburb of Observatory, but within months the pandemic forced him to temporarily close up shop.
Now load shedding is wreaking havoc, forcing him to close his doors for large parts of the day. Because he doesn’t have a generator to keep his display freezers going, it means that as soon as the power goes off he has to move all his stock to the deep freeze to stop it from melting.
“There’s a noticeable difference in profits at the end of each month because of it,” Tapiwa says.
All he can do is soldier on and hope that the situation will improve, so he can continue serving up ice-cream.
For him, the most satisfying thing about what he does is seeing the expression of delight on customers faces when they try something totally new a flavor they’ve never tasted before.
Produced in association with Magazine Features ZA
(Additional reporting provided by Magazine Features ZA)