Why Egusi Is More Than Just A Great Soup


Every cook has at least one hard-to-get ingredient that they know they can find almost anywhere they are, as long as they’re persistent.

For me, it’s the egusi seed. Even after moving from Nigeria to the United States, I’ve always been able to find these off-white seeds, dried and peeled, harvested from the gourd-like fruit of a climbing vine native to West Africa. Just a few handfuls are all I need for a divine pot of soup.

The availability of an ingredient that grows on the other side of the Atlantic feels like a luxury, and I felt that even more acutely after speaking with Bethany Oyefeso, who owns Adùn, a Nigerian food delivery company, with her husband, Tobi Smith.

When she left Nigeria in 2004, egusi seeds — also called agushi, egunsi or egwusi — and most other West African ingredients were harder to come by outside the continent. As she moved from Sierra Leone to China, the United Arab Emirates and finally to the United States, she developed a kind of sixth sense for finding if not the ingredient itself, then an ideal substitute.

Now in southwest Houston, home to a bustling West African population, she benefits from the kind of access she hadn’t had since she left Nigeria. “There are almost two to three Nigerian stores on every other street,” she said by phone.

In a recent episode of “Taste the Nation,” Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu series, now in its second season, that abundance is on display. Ms. Lakshmi, Ms. Oyefeso and Mr. Smith peruse the brightly lit aisles of Wazobia Market, the store’s shelves stacked high with West African ingredients: finely milled flours, red palm oil — and whole and ground egusi seeds.

Elsewhere in southwest Houston, Ms. Lakshmi tastes suya, bole, fufu, asun and jollof, tries her hand at pounding yam and practices the art of scooping soup with swallows.

She moves from the kitchen at Margaret Chibuzo’s Safari restaurant to the dining room, where she shares egusi soup with the gospel singer Stacy Egbo. Their conversation resonated with me: They, too, had felt the longing that could compel one, when starved of a connection to a past, to use food as a link.

In the summer of 2017, newly married and having just received my green card, I craved a deeper understanding of my chosen home. Equipped with an audio recorder, I drove cross-country with my husband to eat at as many Nigerian restaurants as I could, and to talk with others who, like me, had found food as a means to connect to the idea of home. What resulted was less a food tour and more a rediscovery of my own culture, and a revelation of how deeply it had taken root here in the United States.

I encountered not just the Nigerian, but the Liberian, Ghanaian and broader West African communities in Newark and Charlotte, Atlanta and Albuquerque. Each one was full of the food of my home. My heart swelled with pride for the network of importers, farmers, restaurateurs and purveyors. By ensuring access to ingredients, they’d helped steward our shared culture a world away.

Versions of egusi soup dotted menus in every city we stopped, and I relished each one. Some were packed with leafy greens, while others were brothier and creamy. Some were served with a swallow, others steamed rice. Each preparation was a comfort to behold, each bowl a story of time, place and memory, a little different or a little more personal, but always recognizable.

My recipe, informed by my mother’s version and my time as a cook at Peju’s Kitchen in Baltimore, is spinach-heavy and stewy, cooked with a blend of red palm oil, onions and the distinctly fragrant irú.

It is all dotted with dumpling-like mounds of ground egusi seeds, but, if you can’t find egusi seeds, pine nuts or pumpkin seeds — ground and cooked in a similar fashion — would replicate the creamy, nutty elements the they impart. The choice of greens can also reflect your preferences and access to ingredients, whether you choose more traditional hearty greens, like ẹ̀fó̩ tẹ́tẹ́ (amaranth greens), ugwu (fluted pumpkin leaves) or tender ẹ̀fó̩ gbure (waterleaf). You can also substitute with mustard greens or mature or baby spinach. Use what is available to you.

But know that the ingredients — and the connections to home — are never too far away, if you just do a little searching.