Egusi is the name of both a substantial hot soup from Nigeria and the melon seed with which that soup is thickened. The seeds themselves are small and pale, and with their internal oils they grind to a paste more so than a powder. West-African stores carry shelled melon seeds, and Indian grocers often do as well. Where the packets disclose details, they tend to call the seeds that of the “white” or “red” melon, which I take to be some undisclosed varities of that African native, the watermelon. Sadly, I have not been able to find a package without a shared-equipment warning for nut-allergy sufferers. But where melon seeds cannot be found many recipes recommend the substitution of pumpkin seeds, which one may come across in situ in the month of October. Shelling would take some time, I fear. Perhaps your local Latin American store, or your local hippie healthy food store, carries safely processed pumpkin seeds, or pepitas.
Some Nigerian recipes for egusi soup call for frying the seed paste, presumably to enhance flavour. In my own kitchen I have found that frying decreases thickening ability, much like a brown roux thickens broth less well than a white one, and left me with a creamy but thin broth. Furthermore, I found that what enhancement of flavour frying this mild paste brought was lost amid the heat of the chilies, so frying the paste is a step that I decline, choosing instead to make a soup that is almost a stew. The meat should be carmelized with high heat, and while the traditional oil of choice is high-smoking palm oil, palm oil is unfamiliar to many cooks, and very high in saturated fat. I substitute sunflower or canola oil, recognizing that some authentic flavour will be lost through this concession. I also suggest frying the beef in a cast-iron pan for good browning and then moving to a saucepan to simmer, but I doubt that anyone cooking on a three-legged pot over an open fire would bother with such foolishness. Many egusi soups recipes use some form of seafood for enhanced flavour, and if fishstock or shrimp are in your diet you might like to include them, but this recipe is fish-free. The tomatoes in this soup do not produce a sauce base here (that is the job of the melon seed) but work as a complementary vegetable to the okra, and provide some acid for the palate. Whole okra cooked until just tender is deliciously vegetal and not at all slimy, again the thickening is provided by the seed paste rather than the okra. Choose the smallest fresh okra you can find this season, or substitute tender young spinach leaves stirred-in at the end instead.
Serve with white rice or Nigerian eba. And if you have a sorghum beer in your fridge, this is the food for it!
Nigerian Melon Seed Soup (Egusi)
90 minutes, including one hour simmering; serves four
2 Tbsp sunflower or canola oil (palm oil for purists)
1 lb stewing beef in 1/2″ cubes
1 onion, finely diced
6 stemmed fresh bird’s eye or scotch bonnet chilies (or other very hot chili)
1 tsp salt
1 cup shelled melon seeds (may substitute pumpkin)
7 fl oz canned tomatoes, diced
1 lb whole okra
1. Heat the oil to smoking in a heavy fry pan (like cast iron) while you dry the beef cubes with kitchen towel. Brown the cubes over high heat without letting them burn. Remove the meat to a waiting saucepan and add three cups of water to it.
2. Add the diced onion to the saucepan of soup and bring to a simmer. Dice the chilies with their seeds and add to the soup. Add the salt. Cover and simmer until the beef is tender, about one hour.
3. Grind the melon seeds in a clean coffee grinder until smooth. Add to the broth. Add water if you feel the soup is too thick.
4. Add the diced tomato. Top and tail the okra and add them, too. Replace the cover and simmer ten minutes more. Taste for salt.