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Frozen pleasure: visiting Addis Ababa’s ice cream parlors

Yetsom Meyazhia is a common Amharic expression for non-fasting food items traditionally consumed in bulk on the eve of the onset fasting seasons. Most restaurants all over the country are crowded with people having ‘one last meal’ before weeks of fasting sets-in. Raw meat, kitfo and siga tibs (different servings of beef) are among the local dishes many love to say ‘good bye’ to before restraining themselves from beef and dairy products. But, it seems that, recently, the ice cream parlors are getting a piece of this action, writes Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen.

“Oh! I will never forget how exited I used to get when my dad tells me that we are having an ice cream at Blue Tops,” says Niyat Yohannes, in her mid-twenties. Niyat goes back in time every time she hears the word Ice Cream.

For her, an ice cream embodies a journey of her life – from the memorable family outings to hanging out with friends. As a child, ice cream was the ultimate reward for Niyat for doing well in school. As a teenager, it became what the ‘cool kids’ like her would go out to get on weekends. Today, as an adult, ice cream is a comfort food for her. Be it during rough times or up on hearing happy news – she still runs to her favorite ice cream place.

Blue Tops was a restaurant located around Amist Kilo in front of the national Museum. It was one of the prominent ice cream shops in Addis which had managed to forge strong ties with its customers over the years. Gelatopia, Mimo and Aurora also come to mind when going a few years back in the city’s ice cream history. Back in the day, these were the ‘it’ places to get ice cream for not more than 20 birr.

Although ice cream lovers remain with the same passion for a scoop or two, it is new parlor owners who have taken over the business now. Consequently, people like Niyat have shifted to contemporary popular spots.

TripAdvisor, an American travel and restaurant guide website that provides hotel and restaurant reviews, accommodation bookings and other travel-related contents, lists Tutto Gelato, Igloo Ice Cream and Embwa Creamery among the top places to get ice cream in Addis Ababa today.

Indeed, these have been the shops frequented by ice cream lovers for the past five years or so. Those who can’t go more than few weeks without a taste of an ice cream are their loyal customers. Ice cream is a seasonal business in Ethiopia, since the number of customers decrease during lent seasons and in the summer (rainy season for Ethiopia). In the peak season, the shops sell up to 70 kilograms per day. Whereas, roughly up to 300 people visit each of the shops The Reporter has spoken to.

Yetsom Meyazia is a common Amharic expression for non-fasting food items traditionally consumed in bulk on the eves of on-setting fasting seasons. Most restaurants all over the country are crowded with people having ‘one last meal’ before weeks of fasting sets-in. Raw meat, kitfo and siga tibs (different servings of beef) are among the local dishes many love to say ‘good bye’ to before restraining themselves from beef and dairy products. But, it seems that recently the ice cream parlors are getting piece of this action.

A day before this year’s charismas fasting season, it wasn’t only the restaurants that were busy but the ice cream shops too. For example, many people were seen lined up in and around Tutto Gelato which is located around Atlas. The waiters were too busy serving those inside the shop and the ones eagerly waiting in their cars. The area was overcrowded that night and many were forced to turn away because they couldn’t find parking spots.

Tutto Gelato, which started giving service two years ago, is an ice cream shop owned by three shareholders. It looks like Seifegebrel Seyoum, the operational manager, is the main brain behind Tutto Gelato. He says, he stated the company with his business partner after studying the art of ice cream making in Italy.

They purchased all the required machineries and ingredients that will last them for a while from Italy. It took nine months to set up the shop and train their people. “Gelato is Italian for ice cream, which is made of natural ingredients. There is no artificial coloring and within -13 °C to -12 °C temperature, it has four days of shelf life,” he explains.

With the growing number of people who are conscious about consuming natural dessert, he says their gelato business is booming. He states that they use fresh vegetables, cream, milk and other necessary ingredients to get the desired result.

They have opened three brunches located around Bole, Sar Bet and one in century mall. “We knew we would return our cost of traveling to Italy to learn about gelato because there is a huge demand in the capital,” he remarks.

The other shareholders have a background in transportation and the ceramics sector; however, they are now completely immersed in the ice cream business. He says “People are recognizing the teste of our gelato and loving it.”

They have 40 different flavors and they serve 18 of them at once. Cookies original, cookie flavored ice cream, is among Tutto’s standard flavors. Dolce latte (with a taste of caramel and chocolate) and salted butter caramel (butter, caramel and chocolate) are in high demand as well. Pineapple, banana and mango flavors are consumed the most during fasting seasons.

“There is a wrong perception that ice cream is just for children even so, our customers are between the age of 20 to 50,” Seifegebrel states. Eating ice cream is becoming more prevalent as compared to the previous years and he believes once people are used to the taste of ‘real ice cream’ the demand will grow even more.

They import ingredients other than milk, egg and sugar from Italy. He says the recent birr devaluation is complicating their job, which mainly depends on imported items. “We are using ingredients we already have in stock, given the current foreign exchange shortage, it is going to be harder once we finish what we have stored,” he highlights the situation.

Currently, one scoop or con of ice cream is around 40 birr. “Ice cream making is an art therefore requires creativity,” says the manager who hopes to expand the business over the coming years.

Most ice cream parlors are busy around holidays like Christmas. Aside from well-known flavors, many create their own signature recipes in addition to using cooking websites and books for more options.

Michael Yimesgen, who co-owns Embwa Creamery with his wife, went out on a quest to teach himself ice cream making four years ago. “I wanted to make a good ice cream so I started researching. I experimented with different flavors and asked people to taste them,” he clarifies how he got into the business.

He used to ask comments from friends and family members which he used to improve his skills. He started off using simple machineries and giving out ice cream gifts for holidays. When he was certain that he has perfected the craft, he bought professional materials from Italy and opened Embwa.

Michael, who was a lawyer in the US for six years, has now settled on seven flavors which he offers in the two brunches located in Sishu Burger and Ebony Restaurant. “Creamery refers to the complete package production of an ice cream by a company,” he points.

Strawberry banana, chocolate brownie and chocolate chip cookie are adored by most of their customers in addition to Yejebena Buna (coffee flavored ice cream) and Kesh Kesh (made of dry caramel and chocolate).

“We produce our own powder and extract our own cream to make different ice cream flavors,” he explains. Online materials and cooking books are their main sources materials as they follow instructions and keep remaking until they get the right taste. Whenever he tries out new recipes, he experiments with local ingredients.

He believes that there are a lot of ice cream shops these days, since it is getting easier to access ingredients with local importers. Yet he says, “On the other hand, it is hard to come across those who produce ingredients for their own consumption.”

At the beginning, most of his customers were expats; but now there are also locals who exclusively go to the shop to get ice cream or have a scoop after having a burger at Sishu. They produce up to 30 to 50 kilograms on holidays as they expect up to 350 people. They usually introduce new flavors for holidays and carry on after gaging the response.

“For this Christmas, we are planning to give away cookies that we use to make ice cream,” he indicates what they have installed for the holiday. They sell the small scoop and con for 36 birr and the big one for 50 birr.

He says “Our customers like the fact that the ice cream has no artificial taste. They also like we have bigger portion.” He has his eyes set on Kazanchis and Bole neighborhoods as he says “It is a profitable business as long as you manage it well.”

Gianluca Pagani, a cheese maker by profession, is one of the three shareholders of Igloo Ice Cream, which started off as a plain conversation between childhood friends. One fine afternoon, the crew developed the craving for an ice cream as it was a hot day. They said “What if we open an ice cream shop?” as a joke but five years later the joke became a lucrative reality.

They opened the first shop around Japan Embassy followed by the one around Olompya and the third one inside chicken hut in front of the Millennium Hall. He states “Our customers know Igloo for Biscotto ice cream. We import the ingredients from Italy and only use milk and cream avoiding egg,” all in all they have 30 flavors which rotate from time to time.

According to Gianluca, considering Addis Abba is a big city and the population is increasing, he can’t say there are numerous consumers. Nevertheless, the number is increasing as compared to five and six years back. They sell one scoop and cup of ice cream for 40 birr.

He believes the life style change of city dwellers has made an impact in his line of work. “The life standard has changed. The foreign exposure and media has also contributed a lot. Having an ice cream is now one way to relax and people plan their days with ice cream in mind,” he narrates.

They produce 100 to 130 kilograms, serving up to 200 people on their busiest day but, he says the business is complicated since it is highly seasonal. “People’s mind set towards ice cream has changed but no one eats ice cream in rainy days and fasting season. On a good business day such as eve of fasting seasons, it is common to come across long line of people at the ice cream shop. Conversely, the parlors will be empty on the following day.

Shortage of foreign exchange has forced them to put their expansion plan on hold as they import most of their flavors excluding fruits. They usually import ingredients every two months or so. He says if materials such as take away packaging are manufactured in Ethiopia, it would prevent them from importing. Despite the challenges he says “We want to keep around our customers who doesn’t eat anywhere else but at Igloo.”

He points, as compared to neighboring countries, there are lots of Ethiopians who consume ice cream; more than Kenyans, for instance. Oppositely, Djiboutians eat a lot of ice cream than Ethiopians as a result of the country’s hot weather and the prevalence of sweets in the Muslim community.

Elias Belay (name changed) has been eating ice cream at Blue Tops and Bruno’s and now shifted to Tutto Gelato, Embwa Creamary and Igloo Ice Cream. Elias, who frequents the shops on weekends, says they each present distinct taste. He enjoys having ice cream and believes it helps with food digestion.

He says the growing number of the diplomatic community in the city and the ‘modern way of life’ has contributed to the popularity of ice cream, especially among the youth.

Ice cream, one of the widely consumed desserts, is usually made from dairy products, such as milk and cream, and often combined with fruits or other ingredients and flavors. It is typically sweetened with sugar or sugar substitutes. Ice cream, with different names such as frozen custard, sorbet and gelato is presented with lots of varieties and styles.

According to historic records, ancient Greeks ate snow mixed with honey and fruit in the markets of Athens. A frozen mixture of milk and rice was used in China around 200 BC. Around 400 BC, the Persians invented a special chilled food, made of rose water and vermicelli, which was served to royalty during summers.

Italian duchess Catherine de' Medici is credited with introducing ice cream into Europe in the 16th century after marrying the Duke of Orléans. She is said to have brought Italian chefs to France, who had recipes for flavored ices or sorbets.

No more a ‘nobility food’, ice cream’s popularity increased over time. The most popular flavors of ice cream are vanilla and chocolate. Ice cream became popular throughout the world in the second half of the 20th century. With the advancement of technology, one can access ice cream makers at home where as ice cream is also manufactured in high scale companies.

Recipes to salted caramel, coffee with chocolate covered espresso beans, fresh mint chocolate chip, mocha ice cream, coconut caramel and many more flavors are one click away.