Samantha Kotey turned her pandemic ice-cream making hobby into its own business
By Matthew Lardie | Photography by John Michael Simpson
It seemed like everyone and their mother was making sourdough bread during the first few months of the pandemic. Not Samantha Kotey, or Sam, as most of her friends call her. “Fun fact: I hate sourdough bread,” she says, laughing.
Half a loaf of leftover plantain bread and a desire not to waste it led Sam to her own pandemic culinary creation. She turned that bread into ice cream, and eventually a new hobby of making ice cream turned into a business: Auntie’s Ice Cream, where Sam marries one of America’s favorite frozen treats with the flavors of the African continent. (The name for the business comes from the common use of “Auntie” across the Continent to refer to the older women, sometimes blood relatives, sometimes just neighbors, who are the heart of family and social life.)
Sam’s parents came from Ghana to the U.S. – first to New York, and then to Houston, where she was born and raised. She arrived in Durham in 2008 for law school at Duke and, after moving around a bit, ended up back in the Bull City for good in 2015. That first batch of plantain bread ice cream sparked a realization in Sam – sure there was plenty of ice cream out there, but none that highlighted the West African flavors her family grew up with, or indeed, any flavors of the Continent at all.
“African food is oftentimes viewed with a little bit of trepidation,” Sam explains. “Ice cream is the perfect medium [to introduce African flavors].”
Today Auntie’s regularly offers flavors from what Sam calls the four cardinal regions of Africa: There’s Salted Amarula, representing Southern Africa; Moroccan Mint Tea for Northern Africa; Kenyan Dirty Chai for East Africa; and a Ghanaian “Hot” Chocolate ice cream for Sam’s ancestral homeland of West Africa.
Creating these flavors allowed Sam to delve into the foodways of all of Africa, many of which were unfamiliar even to her. “In trying new flavors, I get to explore the Continent,” she says.
Sam also offers a seasonal sorbet based on whatever ingredients she can find locally. Some recent flavors include strawberry coconut and blueberry sobolo, a spiced hibiscus flavor. If nothing at the market piques her interest, she falls back on a classic of West African cuisine – what is commonly called “ginger drink.” Sam transformed this ubiquitous drink of spicy fresh ginger and pineapple juice into a sorbet that her customers clamor for. Sam also makes sure to source her ingredients from the Continent whenever possible. The ginger comes directly from a market in Benin, the chocolate from Ghana, the cardamom from Kenya, and the Amarula liqueur is a popular South African tipple that can be found here in the U.S. Though she’s currently only selling online or through various pop-ups (folks can head to her website and sign up for the newsletter to be notified of upcoming pop-ups and new flavors), Sam has major plans for the future of Auntie’s Ice Cream.
“My dream is to have a confection empire,” she says. With eyes on retail expansion (when she has the time – she’s still working her day job as a tech lawyer at Pendo in Raleigh), Sam hopes that she can continue to introduce people to the varied flavors of Africa by using ice cream as an entry into American freezers.
“Auntie’s is not just ice cream,” Sam insists. “It’s a vessel through which I can share the ingredients, the flavors and the traditions of the Continent.” If her mission is to evangelize the rest of us to the allure of African foods, she’s certainly chosen the right vessel.