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.
- For the Beef and Stock:
- 1 pound (450g) bone-in or boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 medium red onion (about 6 ounces; 175g), thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons ground crayfish (see note)
- 2 teaspoons (6g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/2 teaspoon Nigerian red dry pepper
- For the Egusi Soup:
- 1 medium red onion (about 6 ounces; 175g), roughly chopped
- 1/2 fresh habanero or Scotch bonnet pepper, stemmed (optional)
- 2 cups (10 ounces; 300g) ground egusi seeds (see note)
- 3/4 cup unrefined red palm oil (5 1/4 ounces; 150g), such as Obiji
- Kosher salt and Nigerian red dry pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground crayfish (see note)
- 3 1/2 ounces (100g) fresh pumpkin leaves, amaranth greens, or kale, rinsed and finely chopped (see note)
- 3 1/2 ounces (100g) fresh waterleaf or spinach, rinsed and finely chopped (see note)
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh or dried bitter leaf or fresh dandelion greens (see note)
For the Stock: In a medium pot, combine beef, onion, crayfish, salt, pepper, and 6 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Lower heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the stock is slightly reduced and the beef is mostly tender, about 45 minutes (the beef will tenderize further when cooked in the soup). Using a slotted spoon, remove beef and transfer to a medium heatproof bowl; set aside. Reserve stock (you should have about 5 1/2 cups).
For the Egusi Soup: In a food processor or countertop blender, process onion, pepper (if using), and 1/4 cup water until smooth. Scrape into a medium bowl and stir in the ground egusi seeds. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until a thick, creamy paste has formed (paste should be viscous and hold its shape). Set aside.
In a 4-quart saucepan, heat oil over low heat for 1 minute. Slowly add all of the reserved stock, along with the crayfish, and bring to a gentle simmer. Add paste, 1 heaped teaspoon at a time, to stock. Cover and cook, stirring and gently scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, until all of the paste is firm and crumbly, about 25 minutes (patches of orange-red palm oil may bubble on top or around the sides).
Add reserved beef and stir gently to break up the cooked paste into curds (stirring more or less affects the size of the curds). Season with salt and pepper to taste. Continue to cook until beef is heated through and tender, and some of the orange-red palm oil pools on top, about 10 minutes.
Mound pumpkin leaves and waterleaf on top of soup without stirring, then cover and let steam until greens are wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir in wilted greens. Add bitter leaf and cook until soft, about 8 minutes.
Food processor or countertop blender
Ground crayfish is made from small prawns that are often sun-dried and smoked.
You can find ground egusi seeds in many West African stores and online.
You will find pumpkin leaves, also known as ugwu or ugu, in Nigerian and West African stores. Curly kale and collard greens are acceptable substitutes.
You will find waterleaf in Nigerian and West African stores. If unavailable, substitute with spinach.
You will find bitter leaf in Nigerian and West African stores. It can be purchased fresh, dried, or frozen. Most versions are washed and shredded, which tones down the bitterness. Other bitter greens, like dandelion, are a good substitute.
To make a creamier egusi, in Step 2, add additional 1/2 cup water to the blender, along with the ground egusi seeds. In Step 3, stir all of the paste into the soup at once, then proceed as directed.
You can make egusi soup without the greens. If desired, simply omit the pumpkin leaves, waterleaf, and bitter leaf in Step 5, and proceed to serve.
The soup thickens as it stands. Some people prefer to eat it on the day it’s made, while others prefer it the day after.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The simmered beef and stock can be refrigerated in separate airtight containers for up to 4 days, or frozen for up to 3 months (thaw before using).
Egusi soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.