Just like so many businesses, Tapi Tapi was born from a hobby. Originally from Zimbabwe, Tapiwa Guzha has a doctorate in molecular biology, and began making ice cream during his post-doctoral fellowship in plant genetics when he left home to study in South Africa. In his kitchen, he was cooking up small batches of novelty flavors inspired by his home country and, before long, it grew into a beloved ice cream shop in Cape Town's bohemian suburb of Observatory.
‘In the beginning, it was very gimmicky,’ explains Tapiwa. ‘But then, one day, I was at a Zimbabwean restaurant and saw some snacks from home. I thought: what if I put those into ice cream?’ After trawling supermarkets for ingredients that reminded him of his childhood growing up near Harare, he dabbled and tested at home. The results, he discovered, were ‘tapi tapi’, a colloquialism for ‘yum yum’ in the Zimbabwean language of Shona. He left the laboratory behind and turned this experiment into an enterprise.
‘For the first time, I was eating ice cream that really meant something to me,’ recalls Tapiwa of that time back in 2018. ‘I realized I had an opportunity to teach people about African food, and to expose people to some of the nostalgia I was experiencing with these flavors.’
In his shop, counter seating lines one wall, broken only by the display fridge full of ice cream where Tapiwa stands, scoop at the ready. Behind him, a chalkboard menu lists the ‘flavorites’ of the week, while a cork map of Africa highlights the dozens of ingredients Tapiwa taps into from across the continent.
There's a granita (a semi-frozen dessert made from water, sugar and flavoring) of South African rooibos (a bushy plant used for herbal tea) and okra, a vegetable common in West Africa. The spiced rice dishes he sampled on his travels in East Africa inspired the ‘pilau’ flavor. His ‘munyemba’ flavor uses the sun-dried leaves of black-eyed peas, a leafy green popular in Zimbabwe. Over time, Tapiwa has learned to tweak the recipes and production process, but each batch is still hand-churned. While his initial enthusiasm saw him creating up to seven new flavors each week, he's learned to slow down the innovation to keep his customers happy.
‘There's always something new,’ says Tapiwa with a chuckle. ‘But our biggest complaint from customers was that the flavors move too quickly, and there was never time for them to come back for a second helping. So, we're now making fewer flavors in larger quantities. But we still do around 100 flavors per year.’
To most visitors, the flavors on the chalkboard are exotic, unusual and occasionally intimidating. And that's exactly how Tapiwa likes it. ‘If you come here and you don't even blink at the flavors, I haven't done something right,’ he says. ‘I want people to come with some hesitancy because I want to trigger questions.’
For Tapiwa, those questions revolve around African identity and renewing pride in the tastes and traditions of the continent. It's also why he's expanding the Tapi Tapi concept beyond simple scoops.
‘Tapi Tapi isn't just about ice cream,’ says Tapiwa. ‘You can take this idea and translate it into so many different things and still play with food. Ice cream was just the most accessible place to start.’
Beyond ice cream
And, just as he's made customers rethink their approach to ice cream, in a space at the back of the cafe, a new deli offers Tapiwa's African ingredients in other ways. There's gnocchi served with a chikichori sauce of peanuts, leafy greens and kapenta (a type of sardine). The gnocchi is made of millet and sorghum flour, both staples in parts of Africa, while the main ingredient of his waffles is teff flour, an ancient grain originating in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It's a world away from the laboratories that brought him to South Africa – but Tapiwa wouldn't want it any other way.