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What is Egusi?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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Egusi colosynthis citrullus lanatus is a West African melon. Agushi, agusi and egushi are other names for this fruit. The melon's flesh is bitter and inedible; only the seeds of the fruit are eaten. Egusi seeds are high in protein and their flavor is said to be close to that of pumpkin seeds. Each seed is oval shaped and whitish in color with a light tan shell. The shelled seeds are ground for use in Nigerian recipes — especially the popular egusi soup.

Ground seeds create a thick soup base that may be thinned down with oil and water. If less water and oil are used, a stew rather than a soup is created; some people prefer a thicker base. Meat and/or fish as well as vegetables finish the soup. Fermented beans called iri as well as chili peppers are added for flavor. Shrimp or crayfish may be used for the fish component of the soup, while the meats may be beef or goat.

A traditional Nigerian egusi soup recipe calls for vegetables such as bitterleaf and celosia. Bitterleaf is from the aster family and it's a leafy vegetable that grows throughout central and West Africa. Bitterleaf has a bittersweet flavor similar to spinach and is sold dried or fresh. Celosia is an edible vine that grows in tropical and subtropical climates; the flowers are crested and brightly colored and the leafy green parts are eaten as a vegetable. African red onions are other vegetables typically added to the soup.

Another popular West African egusi recipe is for palaver sauce. Palaver sauce is meaty and may be served over rice or other grains. Bitterleaf as well as both fish and meat are used in the sauce. Some cooks like to use prawns and chicken. As with the egusi soup, African red onions and chili peppers are also added. Ground egusi seeds are added to the other palaver sauce ingredients near the end of the simmering time in order to thicken the mixture.

Seeds should be purchased fresh to avoid unhealthy fungal growth that may be carcinogenic, or cancer causing. Many Nigerians buy the seeds still in chunks of melon. They remove the seeds at home, then shell and grind them. Toasted egusi seeds are eaten for snacks or fried into small cakes.

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