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Nigerian Egusi Soup Recipe

Why It Works

  • A combination of beef chuck roast, red onion, and ground crayfish infuse the stock with layers of flavor. 
  • Mixing ground egusi seeds and water yields a paste that, when poached in stock, produces a thick, creamy soup with a curd-like texture.

Creamy, nutty egusi soup is a staple in homes and bukas, or street food stalls, across Nigeria and in many parts of West Africa. The soup takes its name from egusi, or agushi―the seeds that both thicken and flavor it. Egusi soup typically features meat (such as beef, smoked poultry, goat, cow skin, and offal) and seafood (smoked dried fish or stockfish), as well as awara (Nigerian tofu), mushrooms, and greens. 

Oil-rich egusi seeds come from small, hard green melons speckled with cream-colored spots or streaks, which makes them resemble watermelons. Often referred to as the white-seed melon (cucumeropsis mannii), it’s related to other cucurbitaceous gourds, melons, and squashes. You may also see it labeled bitter melon (not to be confused with the bitter melon common to Asian cooking), a reference to its white flesh, which can be slightly bitter.

The seeds are first extracted from the melon’s flesh then sun-dried until their shells turn mustard yellow. Once dried, they are stored as-is, deshelled (either by machine or by hand, a more prized and expensive method), or ground into a coarse flour.

The seeds have a variety of culinary uses: they can be toasted for a snack; ground and pressed to extract a cooking oil; blended into nut butter; and milled into a flour for baking or thickening soups and stews―I’ve even made a pesto of sorts with it. Mgbam, a textured protein popular in eastern Nigeria, is made by combining ground egusi seeds and usu, a mushroom tuber (akin to a truffle but without the intense flavor).

To make egusi soup, I start by making a stock infused with beef, red onion, and ground crayfish. Once that’s ready, I blend coarsely ground egusi seeds with chopped red onion and water to form a thick, creamy paste, which I dollop into the simmering stock and poach, undisturbed, until the paste congeals. I then give everything a stir to break up the paste, creating curds. The finished soup, which can be topped off with a mix of wilted pumpkin and waterleaf greens, eats more like a stew. You might hear people say, “I’m eating soup” or “I’m licking soup,” when eating egusi; these common phrases are a nod to its thicker consistency.

Take note that my version is only one of many. Across Nigeria, egusi soup varies from region to region and palate to palate. You’ll find differences in the proteins, seasoning, and greens used, and, more importantly, in the way the egusi itself is prepared. For instance, a friend of mine from the east shared his recipe for a creamier style of egusi in which the ground seeds  are stirred into the stock and cooked, resulting in an even, creamy consistency; he finishes the soup with delicate herbs that add layers of freshness and flavor. In contrast, Egusi Ijebu from the southwest of Nigeria is similarly creamy but uses toasted and ground egusi seeds, has tomatoes in the stock, and omits the greens. 

Egusi soup is commonly paired with swallows (soft cooked doughs made from roots, tubers, vegetables, flours, and more) like eba, fufu, and pounded yam (think mashed potatoes without seasoning, so the sweet delightful flavors of the yam shine through). You can also serve egusi with white rice (typically parboiled long-grain), dodo (fried plantains), and other starchy preparations, such as boiled yam or plantain, or enjoy it on its own.

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