By Yewande Komolafe, The New York Times
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. Lakshmi, Oyefeso and 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, Lakshmi tastes suya, bole, fufu, asun and jollof and tries her hand at pounding yam.
She moves from the kitchen at Margaret Chibuzo’s Safari restaurant to the dining room, where she shares egusi soup with 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, New Jersey; Charlotte, North Carolina; Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Atlanta. 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. 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.
Recipe: Egusi Soup
By Yewande Komolafe
A delicious blend of stewed leafy greens bathed in a nutty, creamy sauce of ground egusi seeds, this soup is incredibly popular across West Africa. The off-white, sliced almond-shaped seeds are harvested from the melon fruit of a climbing vine native to West Africa. Also known as egunsi, agushi or egwusi, they act as a thickener in soup, especially when combined with a broth and added to a base of onions, palm oil and irú. This recipe includes chunks of meaty roasted mushrooms and fresh tender spinach leaves, but use what’s available to you, whether that’s meat or more traditional hearty greens, like ẹ̀fó̩ tẹ́tẹ (amaranth greens), ugwu (fluted pumpkin leaves) or tender ẹ̀fó̩ gbure (waterleaf). Each version you make that’s a little different is also a little more personal. But it’s the seeds that make it always recognizable.
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes
For the soup:
- 1 pound mixed mushrooms, such as oyster, button, shiitake, cremini and maitake, cleaned, trimmed and cut or torn into 2-inch pieces if large
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 packed cup dried, peeled egusi seeds or 1 1/4 cups ground egusi seeds
- 2 cups vegetable stock or water
- 1 pound fresh baby spinach (see Tips)
For the ata din-din:
- 1 medium yellow onion, halved lengthwise
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, scrubbed
- 1 (16-ounce) jar roasted red bell peppers, drained
- 1/2 cup red palm oil
- 1 tablespoon irú (fermented locust bean) or 2 teaspoons dawadawa powder
- 1 teaspoon red miso (optional)
- 1 red or orange Scotch bonnet chile
- 1 plum tomato, chopped
1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Spread the mushrooms in an even layer on a small rimmed sheet pan and drizzle with the olive oil. Season lightly with salt and, using your hands, toss to coat. Roast, turning the pan halfway through and tossing the mushrooms, until golden brown and crisp along the edges, about 25 to 35 minutes.
2. If using whole egusi seeds, add to a food processor, pulsing a few times, then grinding, until you get a medium-coarse meal, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Move to a small bowl. (If using ground seeds, add them here.) Combine ground seeds with 1/2 cup vegetable stock or water. Season lightly with salt and set aside.
3. Make the ata din-din: In the food processor — no need to wipe it out — coarsely chop half of the onion, and all of the garlic and ginger. Add the roasted red bell peppers and pulse to a coarse purée.
4. Thinly slice the remaining onion and heat the red palm oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and cook until soft and translucent, 3 minutes. Add the red pepper purée and bring to a simmer. Add the irú or dawadawa powder and the red miso (if using). Drop in the whole chile and add the chopped tomato. Allow to simmer, stirring frequently until the sauce deepens in color, the tomato cooks down and any liquid dries out, about 12 minutes. The ata din-din should resemble a cooked relish with oil on the surface. Season lightly with salt and move about half of the sauce to a bowl.
5. While the sauce simmers, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Blanch the spinach until just wilted and bright green, about 30 seconds. Drain and run under cold water immediately. Working in handfuls, squeeze the spinach as dry as you can. You should have about 2 cups packed. Set aside.
6. To the large skillet with ata din-din, increase the heat to medium-high and add the remaining 1 1/2 cups stock. Bring to a simmer and dot the sauce with tablespoonfuls of the egusi purée. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook without stirring until the egusi purée absorbs the stock, thickening and congealing into lumps, about 10 minutes. Remove the lid and cook off any excess liquid, moving the skillet back and forth, to keep the cooked egusi in lumps. Increase the heat back to medium-high, separate the squeezed spinach, and scatter along with the roasted mushrooms into the skillet and top with the reserved ata din-din. Gently stir to distribute the spinach and mushrooms into the sauce, making sure the egusi stays in lumps.
7. Cook until spinach and mushrooms are warmed through, about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with additional salt, if necessary. Remove the whole chile and discard. Serve immediately.
Egusi seeds and irú can be found dried and peeled, sold whole or finely ground at local West African grocers or online. If you can’t find egusi seeds, whole raw pine nuts or peeled raw pumpkin seeds — ground and cooked in a similar fashion — would replicate the creamy, nutty elements imparted by egusi seeds.
You can replace the fresh spinach with 24 ounces of defrosted whole-leaf spinach, from frozen. Defrost the spinach in the refrigerator, squeeze dry in handfuls and measure 2 packed cups. Follow the instructions in Step 6 to add to the sauce.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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