Have a cold one in an Ethiopian ice cream parlour

Have a cold one in an Ethiopian ice cream parlour
Photo by Mark Cruz on Unsplash

It’s rush hour in Addis Ababa, but we are lurking in the slow lane. The traffic isn’t moving. In fact, we’re deliberately stuck. An entire 100m strip of Namibia Street in front of the tiny Tutto Gelato ice cream shop in the posh suburb of Bole is a parking lot, a bit of a makeshift roadhouse. Waiters in the place’s cheery orange T-shirts are working the cars parked outside, taking orders and delivering ice cream in double-quick time.

All you need is ice cream” is emblazoned on the waiters’ backs, although the customers buzzing around the shop already know this well. While you wait, some touts will come by and try to flog you some counterfeit DVDs to go with your cold stuff. All in a day’s work.

My friend, who has lived in Addis for some years and who has done this routine with his family before, recommends the salted caramel. Just for luck, I order a scoop of dark chocolate too. The sugar cones – made on the premises – have run out, so we settle for the ordinary ones out of the box to avoid the plastic cup alternative. He was spot-on about the salted caramel, which left the dark chocolate (which had a minty rather than a satisfactory bitter aftertaste) in a distant second place.

Photo: Carien du Plessis

Ice cream arrived in Ethiopia with the Italians, and fortunately didn’t leave like the Italians after the Ethiopians defeated them in the Battle of Adwa near the turn of the 19th century.

A few days later I find myself inside the actual Tutto Gelato, to try the sugar cone and some more flavours – for research purposes, you understand. It was in the middle of the day and much quieter than the rush hour ice cream run which can pack out the place quite quickly, but it meant I could take my time ordering a scoop of black cookies ice cream and one with mixed white and milk chocolate flavour.

They still didn’t live up to the salted caramel, but afterwards I asked for a taste of the gorgeously soft pink bubbly flavour (no, not Champagne, bubblegum) and the baby blue one next to it, called azurro cielo, which really tasted like the sky in marshmallow flavour, and immediately regretted not getting a combination of these two in the first place.

At 40 birr (roughly R20) a scoop, ice cream isn’t exactly the food of the masses in Addis Ababa. For the same price as two scoops, you can, for instance, buy four or five beers or a vegetarian injera meal at a local restaurant – and even this might be out of the reach of most ordinary people.

There is also not much Amharic on the signage of the actual ice cream flavours, but the friendly servers behind the counter speak almost exclusively Ethiopian languages.

Most of the ice cream sold on a weekday in Tutto Gelato seems to go to adults, but at a branch of Igloo, in the same neighbourhood, there is an entire outside area to sit and enjoy the ice cream, plus a play area for kids. The interiors of the ice cream shops are decidedly playful, with Gelato’s being bright orange, while Igloo is decorated with pictures of penguins.

The “fasting” flavours at Igloo – sorbet without milk or animal ingredients, forbidden by the Ethiopian Orthodox religion on fasting days – came highly recommended, so I tried the strawberry and lemon in an indulgent sugar cone bowl. It still didn’t top Gelato’s salted caramel, though. Perhaps nothing in Addis will.

There has been a proliferation of ice cream joints in Ethiopia’s first city in the past few years because, although ice cream is expensive, the Ethiopian economy has been on the up. Gelato has just opened a fourth branch and Igloo has a couple of branches. A new place called Scoop Ice Cream opened recently not far from Bole Airport. It is owned by an Ethiopian who returned home after living in Canada for a few years.

There is also the Embwa Creamery, attached to the Sishu hamburger restaurant, not far from the African Union headquarters, which came highly recommended by a friend.

They have the creamiest ice cream,” she said, and she has a two-year-old to confirm it. This is, then, a spot to try next time.

Unlike the pizza and pasta, which have become part of the Ethiopian cuisine (pasta on injera is delicious, by the way), ice cream is somewhat less widespread outside of the few specialised shops. Even though quality ice cream has become more widely available in recent times, flavourings and equipment is still imported from abroad – which probably explains why there aren’t really any truly local flavours, such as the tree tomato ice cream I encountered in Kigali, Rwanda, on a previous trip.

But as the industry develops and expands, this will hopefully come. After all, it took me a while to catch on too. It only took me five years’ worth of annual visits, and one very enthusiastic exhortation by a local (“but ice cream is the best in Addis, what do you mean you’ve never been to Gelato!?”) to get a taste of the local cold stuff for the first time.

Ethiopian coffee flavour, anyone? DM


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