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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
The egusi plant looks so much like a watermelon plant that most botanists think it is one. The fruit looks so much like a small, round, watermelon that the two are also easily confused.1 However on the inside the egusi fruit is neither red, nor luscious, nor sweet. Indeed, it is white and dry and bitter enough to be repulsive. This is one fruit not even monkeys bother with. But for all that egusi is a food crop…and far from a small one at that.
Egusi2 is grown for its seeds, which resemble large, white, melon seeds. In West Africa, a region where soups are integral to life, they are a major soup ingredient and a common component of daily meals. Coarsely ground up, they thicken stews and contribute to widely enjoyed steamed dumplings. Some are soaked, fermented, boiled, and wrapped in leaves to form a favorite food seasoning.3 They are also roasted and ground into a spread like peanut butter. Some are roasted together with peanuts and pepper and ground into an oily paste4 that is used when eating kola nuts, eggplant, and fruits. Egusi-seed meal is compacted into patties that serve as a meat substitute. It is even said that the dry seeds placed on a hot skillet pop like popcorn and come out looking like puffed rice.
Beyond their use in processed form, egusi seeds are commonly parched and eaten individually as a snack. In his recollections of life in Ghana, one commentator notes: “Whenever a group of men were standing around talking, their hands were usually busy dehulling [shelling] egusi seeds.” And another recalling life in Cameroon notes: “On many an evening or hot afternoon in farming villages, women sitting with their families will be deftly and rapidly shelling the seeds ready for sale or home cooking.”
Watermelon is also an African native. For details, see companion volume on the fruits of Africa.
In Ghana and a few other countries it is called “neri.” Egusi (some think the term derives from Yoruba; some from Hausa) has become the generic name for the seed across West Africa’s many linguistic boundaries.
In Nigeria this is known as “ogiri-isi” and in Benin “avrouda.” It typically comes with or without dried shrimp.