For two years, Evis Chirowa has been baking savory Zimbabwean pies and selling them at Toronto's busiest farmers markets, but now she's opened her first brick-and-mortar shop to bring these salty, buttery pastries to the masses.
I'm told there are a great many street snacks in Zimbabwe.
"But the meat pie—the meat pie is, like, king of all of them. You ask Zimbabweans about the meat pie, they're like, Yeah, OK, now we're talking food!" Evis Chirowa says, erupting into laughter.
For the past two years, Chirowa has been baking countless savoury Zimbabwean pies and selling them at Toronto's busiest farmers markets. Tonight, in a small catering kitchen, the production demands are more than doubled. Chirowa and her tiny team have to stock her usual weekend markets, plus the grand opening of Mnandi Pies, her company's first permanent location. If Chirowa is at all stressed about the prospect of baking more than 700 pies in the next 24 hours, it doesn't show one bit.
"The pies in Zimbabwe, they had this gooey goodness in the middle, right. It was, like, pure gravy that is so flavourful and so tasty. The butter in the pastry and the saltiness in the gravy—it was just perfect." Chirowa's eyes go wide when she talks.
"When I was growing up, it was a luxury item. One you'd aspire to get when you get a little bit of disposable income. So it was like, Yes, I'm gonna save and I'm gonna get that meat pie! For my family, we'd only get it when my mom gets paid at the end of the month. And she'd only be able to afford one, and then she'd have to cut it nine times—she had nine kids. She had to make sure everybody has a taste of it."
"That one bite, that only bite that you have that month—if that happens that month—it was like the most perfect bite that you could ever get.
"That's what I was trying to recreate. Because it was amazing, really. It was like heaven in a bite."
The magic of the Zimbabwean pie, and what distinguishes it from its stodgier British ancestors, is in the filling's unique spice blend. It's centered on clove and sage and recalls a gentle garam masala. Chirowa's first attempts at recreating the blend with locally sourced spices fell flat.
"So, I got my brother to ship me a shitload of spices."
Even with the good stuff, direct from Zimbabwe, it took her several tries to nail the flavour she had in her memories.
"You know when what your thinking inside your head becomes actual? That kind of feeling? Especially when you're cooking, because it's so difficult! It's so very difficult sometimes to do that. But when what you're thinking matches the outcome, it was perfect. I was like, Yes! Yes! This is what I'm looking for. I remember that moment very well."
She adds, "It was almost a year long process from the time I started [baking] to making it a business, with lots of mistakes—lots of them."
After a tricky process of trial and error, Chirowa settled on making palm-sized pies priced at $5. She found an image and a name (mnandi means "delicious" in Ndebele, a language spoken in southern Zimbabwe) while cracking the monthly farmers market at University of Toronto's remote Scarborough campus in late 2013. Through those first forays, she made connections with supportive networks like Food Forward and CaterToronto.
"When I started working with Vanessa [Ling Yu at CaterToronto], the first thing that we had to do was to batch-up my production. How do we go from a hundred pies to a thousand pies? How do we make sure that we're making consistent product? Sit down, do your measurements. 'Cause half the time maybe I was doing it from my head."
"The response we've gotten from Toronto has been great. It's been overwhelmingly great, I should say."
The expansion beyond the farmers markets and into a permanent home is a logical next step for Mnandi Pies. It won't be a conventional brick-and-mortar, but a tiny space in a converted shipping crate that forms part of a unique street food market at the corner of Scadding Court Community Centre.
Kim Antonius runs the Fairmount Park Farmers' Market where Chirowa established itself. She's giving up her Friday night to chop cilantro for Mnandi's big opening. "Evis really stuck with it. Her story's great, her product's great, and for an East End market, the price points are fantastic," she says.
"You know, she's always got the business acumen," Antonius adds.
Chirowa is more than confident about the venture: "Business-wise, there's no risk, really, whatsoever."
The rental and setup costs on the shipping crate ("the box," as her staff have already dubbed it) are a small fraction of that of a downtown storefront. Chirowa has calculated her break-even point and sees it as an easy target.
"No matter what, it makes sense to be there," she states.
The grand opening draws a modest crowd, thoroughly smiling, in spite of sweltering heat and humidity. Steps from the pie stall, Chirowa's husband cooks gochi gochi—Zimabwean charcoal-grilled steak strips served with a tart tomato salad that must be pico de gallo's chunky, long-lost twin. Salty and meaty, it's the kind of food you salivate over between mouthfuls.
But it's the pies most people have come for.
"I was in Zimbabwe a few weeks ago," says Sarah Dawson, a guest, between mouthfuls.
"When I got home, this was all I was eating, so when I heard about the Facebook event, I had to come."
Chirowa herself is playing the social butterfly, flitting back and forth between the grill and the stall, greeting old friends and explaining her products to curious first-timers.
Chirowa's obvious gratitude recalls an exchange from the night before, as the small crew sat on plastic dairy crates outside the catering kitchen, eating a simple staff meal of sausage and potatoes.
"In my culture, we have this saying: Kutenda kwakitsi kuri mumoyo," Chirowa switches into Shona. "'You can never see the thanks of a cat.' It's an idiom. It pretty much says you cannot cut up my heart and open it and see how thankful I am. I wish you could do that and then you could understand how thankful I am. The support that we've gotten, it's unbelievable."
Antonius then reminds her, "People get behind you because they believe in you."