BMB in Africa

600 flavors of home

Laurel Oldach
July 27, 2022

Ambling down a high street in the Observatory neighborhood of Cape Town, South Africa, last year, Paballo Chauke was looking for a restaurant with braaied meat — a grilled cuisine akin to barbecue.

Tapiwa Guzha
Tapi Tapi is an ice cream shop in the Observatory neighborhood of Cape Town, South Africa.

He happened upon a narrow, likely-looking café on a street full of bars and restaurants. Outside, a sign read, in part, “Remember our lives, stories and histories don’t begin in 1488. You come from a time and place most ancient.”

The workers behind the counter struck up a conversation with Chauke. He recognized one of them from social media as proprietor Tapiwa Guzha, a prominent figure in Cape Town’s food scene.

“We laugh,” Chauke said. “We talk like we know each other — and then they sell me ice cream!”

Chauke is lactose intolerant. He was looking for dinner, not dessert. Nonetheless, with a selection of vegan flavors to offer, Guzha made the sale.

Guzha, a plant geneticist turned ice cream entrepreneur, is on a mission to use ice cream to get people talking. By selling flavors inspired by African cuisines, he is looking to stir his customers’ emotions and to catalyze a change in culture.

Tapi Tapi café

Guzha’s ice cream parlor is called Tapi Tapi, which translates roughly from his native Shona as “yum yum.” The ice creams on the menu vary from one week to the next. But all his offerings are proudly Afrocentric. One week in March, the lineup included a Kenyan pilau flavor with puffed rice; a sorbet made of sobolo, a hibiscus flower infusion with spice that’s common in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon; a vegan rooibos and ginger flavor with biscuit crumbs, meant to evoke dipping coconut biscuits into South African tea; and a peanut butter and pumpkin mix inspired by Guzha’s childhood in Zimbabwe.

These native flavors are not what a typical ice cream parlor in the area sells. Customers, Guzha has said in interviews, sometimes make phone calls from his café to say, “You’ll never believe what I am eating right now.”

Tapiwa Guzha
Tapiwa Guzha
Tapiwa Guzha is on a mission to use ice cream to get people talking.

But the point is not really the ice cream. “The ice cream is a little conversation starter. It’s a little bribe,” he said in an interview with ASBMB Today. “And then I get you with another side to the conversation.”

Once he has drawn people in, Guzha asks them: Just why is it so unusual, in Africa, to eat African flavors?

Arriving in Cape Town

Guzha shot to culinary fame in part due to his unusual background. He earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and was a postdoc for several years before founding his business.

Educated in Catholic boarding schools in his native Zimbabwe, he recalled a field trip to a research lab that worked on flies. “I remember seeing the fly mounts on the wall, in blue frames, and thinking, ‘Oh, this is so cool,’” he said.

Such experiences, combined with an innate curiosity about the world, inspired a passion for science. In his last year of high school, when Zimbabwean students narrow their focus to just three subjects, Guzha selected biology, chemistry and math. He arrived in Cape Town in 2005 to begin college.

Chance customer Chauke, who now works as a training coordinator at a malaria genomics program in the U.K., started at the University of Cape Town not long after. He shares with Guzha the experience of being a Black scientist in a country where — even though 80% of the population is Black — Black scientists remain a minority. Chauke described the strange transition from being part of the majority to a campus where lecture halls seemed to hold 50 Black students for every 300 white ones.

“What is going on? Am I in South Africa?” he recalled thinking. “The professors, they’re all white. No one says anything to you — but what it says to your society and subconscious is that you don’t belong here.”

Thanks in part to a student protest movement that peaked in 2015, the University of Cape Town has examined and worked to reform its race relations since the time Chauke and Guzha were students. Still, Chauke said, his impression of academic culture remains, “You assimilate or you fail.”

Life in the lab

Guzha did well as an undergraduate, staying on for an optional fourth-year honors course with a research component. He was the first honors student to work with Robert Ingle, a plant geneticist who recently had joined the faculty and launched several projects in Arabidopsis.

In a 2020 interview with Ghanaian American food podcaster Yorm Tagoe, Guzha was characteristically frank about his choices after graduation: He couldn’t find a job. (In 2011, the International Monetary Fund estimated South African unemployment in the wake of the global financial crisis at 24%.) So he stayed on in Ingle’s lab to earn a master’s degree with stipend support, which went well enough that Ingle encouraged him to upgrade to a Ph.D. track.

Guzha’s project was to characterize plants with mutations in two proteins homologous to nematode resistance proteins in another species. The lab suspected they were involved in trade-offs between responding to pathogens and to abiotic stress.

“Some Ph.D.s are quite nice and linear, and they work, and everything goes quite swimmingly,” Ingle said. This was not one of them. “There were many setbacks along the way. The phenotypes were quite weak, and sometimes they were inconsistent. … He had to work hard in the end to get enough data to write it up.”

In the meantime, Ingle said, Guzha became the social leader of the lab and the department. He always had numerous projects in the works. He got into cooking and body building. He designed a hoodie for the department, based on popular selection from among several design options, and sold it to his classmates. He was a charismatic teacher and a rigorous grader with junior students. It was the era of Groupon; he organized lab outings around interesting deals, memorably including a shark cage diving expedition.

Science careers

Most plant biologists trained in South Africa leave the field eventually, according to Ingle, who did his own training at Oxford. “There are relatively few universities … and not much of a biotech or agritech industry here,” he said. “The vast majority of our students go on and do something different, or go overseas.”

Given those demographics and Guzha’s eclectic passions and projects, Ingle was surprised when Guzha landed a postdoc in crop biotechnology.

“By the time the Ph.D. was done, I knew I had no interest in academia,” Guzha said. “But I did a postdoc as a placeholder while I was trying to figure out what I did want to do. As time went by, I started to value not the scientific process, but the institution of science less and less.”

Guzha chose the location of his café carefully. In the caption of this 2020 Instagram post, he explained that he wanted his space to be accessible to Black customers and safe for him as an immigrant. The Observatory neighborhood, which is racially diverse, fit the bill.
Guzha chose the location of his café carefully. In the caption of this 2020 Instagram
post, he explained that he wanted his space to be accessible to Black customers
and safe for him as an immigrant. The Observatory neighborhood, which is racially
diverse, fit the bill.

He became uncomfortable working to optimize the growth and yield of global commodity crops such as maize, stevia, tobacco and sugar cane under arid South African conditions. Better adapted indigenous crops such as millet, sorghum and teff existed — but there were neither funds to study them nor economic demand to support growing them.

Ingle said he finds that critique reasonable. As is the case around the world, most plant biologists in South Africa focus on economically important species. The basic research community is so small, he added, that many scientists choose to study plants of international interest in order to be part of a larger conversation and in hopes of landing foreign funding.

Guzha was also unhappy that his research findings were inaccessible to ordinary people outside of science; he felt a disconnect between his work and his heritage.

“It’s a really consistent story,” he said. “If you look at finance, law, accounting, fashion, music … the local perspective, or the quote-unquote native or indigenous perspective, is not particularly important.”

Despite the critique, Guzha said, he does not feel bitter about science or resent the years he spent in the lab. “I enjoyed that chapter. But it served me no longer. So I decided to transition out of it.”

From hobby to mission

Guzha got interested in ice cream when he was a graduate student after he saw contestants on Top Chef Australia make ice cream using both liquid nitrogen and dry ice.

“The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh! I’ve got access to dry ice in the lab, from deliveries of enzymes or whatever,’” he said. “And that dry ice is really just left alone to sublimate, and then it disappears.”

After years with an ice cream hobby, he started the business in 2018, making typical flavors. But he needed to find a selling point for his product, which, made by hand in 15-liter batches, is more costly to produce than ice cream made by larger commercial competitors. He tried first making beer and cocktail flavors, looking for a gimmick that would set his brand apart.

In a story he has recounted many times, Guzha describes his moment of revelation: While visiting a Zimbabwean restaurant, he noticed some familiar crunchy snacks from home. He bought a few and mixed them into a batch of ice cream. He told the podcaster Tagoe, “It was the first time I felt like I had created something that was true to me.”

Guzha recognized the power of his creation a few months later at an ice cream tasting on Heritage Day, a holiday celebrating South Africa’s diverse cultures. Many attendees were also Zimbabwean immigrants, though not all of them shared Guzha’s food traditions. As he served a flight of nine ice creams, each with its own connection to an African cuisine, he noticed people talking about the memories each flavor evoked. He saw the impact ice cream could have, and his business became a mission.

Scientific instinct

Since 2018, Guzha has developed 600 or more flavors inspired by continental cuisines. His ingredients include amaranth greens, yellow plum, baobab, imphepho (licorice) smoke and tamarind.

Many of Guzha’s recipes use plant extracts, such as this colorful group of cordials distilled from plants native to South Africa's Cape Peninsula.
Many of Guzha’s recipes use plant extracts, such as this colorful group of cordials
distilled from plants native to South Africa's Cape Peninsula.

Ice cream is a complex colloid: a mixture of particles including fat droplets, air bubbles and ice crystals captured in precise ratios in a viscous matrix of simple sugars, polysaccharides and milk proteins. But when Guzha develops flavors, he now operates by instinct, like a researcher whose protein purification protocol has become second nature.

“Understanding how ice cream is formed — crystallization and formation of ice crystals, and compatible solutes like sugar, and fat content, and how that fits ice formation, and then texture and volatiles — all those things, I don’t actively think about them anymore, but they show up a lot when I reflect on a flavor,” he said.

His scientific background might come into play when he decides whether to make infusions in milk, water or oil or considers the chemistry behind the flavor profile of a combination of acidic hibiscus with basic baobab. “But primarily, if I’m thinking of a recipe purely from a flavor point of view, it’s typically cultural and not so much from a chemical perspective.”

The cafe has garnered a lot of interest both domestically and among glossy international cuisine magazines. Sometimes his interviewers visibly are moved by the work Guzha is doing. The host of one food-themed docuseries, celebrity chef and food writer Karen Dudley, choked up as she said, “What Tapi is really doing is giving people access to his mind: his phenomenal understanding of ingredients, his curation of indigenous African grains and flavors ... I see Tapi as the new, immersed in tradition and knowledge and taking us into a new understanding.”

Proof of concept

Ice cream is a complex colloid of fat droplets, sugary syrup, ice crystals and air bubbles. In an Instagram post, Guzha broke down one flavor.
Ice cream is a complex colloid of fat droplets, sugary syrup, ice crystals and air
bubbles. In an Instagram post, Guzha broke down one flavor.

All the attention has been good for business, but Guzha’s feelings about it are complicated.

Whenever the press writes about Tapi Tapi, he said, “There are parts of the story that reflect the fact that I’m a Ph.D. holder, and they reflect that I’m one of one doing African flavors like this. So it echoes and reinforces the idea that this isn’t normal and it takes a kind of exceptional Negro, like a magical Negro to make this happen.”

He rejects this message categorically.

He also rejects the title doctor, saying it feels wrong “to speak of myself as someone who is a vessel of knowledge, because I feel very uninformed and very ignorant,” and adding that the title excludes nonacademic life experience. “People conflate it with someone of significance, whatever that means. And I don’t agree with the connotations there.”

Guzha is impatient with the number of times he’s been invited to replicate Tapi Tapi elsewhere in South Africa and across the continent. “Instead of asking me to open a branch in your local neighborhood, go speak to your local ice cream shop and ask them why they are not making African flavors,” he said. “The cafe is the initial proof of concept.”

Before they met in person at the café last year, Chauke said, he was struck by — and a little incredulous of — Guzha’s frank, open online persona. Academic culture, Chauke explained, has long held that scientists must “behave in a certain way — especially if you’re a person of color, if you’re queer, if you’re first generation.”

Shirtless on social media, up-front about the many side projects he still has cooking, ranging from visual art and soap making to sex education and advocacy for indigenous plant studies, Guzha broke those rules.

To Chauke, all these facets can be liberating. And as for the Tapi Tapi café, he said, “It’s great. It’s avant garde. It’s open minded. It’s futuristic; it’s Afro-futuristic. It’s eye opening. It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s lively, it’s necessary, it’s important, it’s needed. It’s worthy of being funded. It’s a great story to tell. It’s representation.”

Local fruits, seeds and grains are among Guzha’s ingredients.
Local fruits, seeds and grains are among Guzha’s ingredients.

Author’s note: Who is Paballo Chauke?

Paballo Chauke
Courtesy of Paballo Chauke
Paballo Chauke

Reporting from nearly 8,000 miles away can be a challenge. I interviewed a few South African scientists, most of whom had heard of Tapi Tapi ice cream even if they hadn’t visited the café. I was fortunate when one of them referred me to Paballo Chauke. When I spoke to him, I learned that he had wandered into the shop one day by mistake but finds Guzha’s success off of the beaten academic career path deeply affirming.

Chauke, who grew up in a township outside of Pretoria and was the first of his three siblings to go to university, recently moved to England to work as a coordinator for a malaria genomics training program. His academic background is eclectic: He majored in sociology and environmental geoscience as an undergraduate, earned a master’s degree in the U.K. in biodiversity, and returned to Cape Town to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental geographical science.

Chauke called Guzha’s career “a whisper in my ear that says, they’ll keep calling you different, but be yourself and it’ll all make sense one day,” he said. “Yes, you’ve worked in bioinformatics; yes, you’ve worked in climate change; yes, you’re now working in genomic surveillance of malaria. … The possibilities are endless.”

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Laurel Oldach

Laurel Oldach is a former science writer for the ASBMB.

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