Monday, 31 January 2011

The Backstory on Egusi

Not for hard-labour peanuts

I seem to have acquired a taste for salted peanuts the excess of which is definitely unhealthy, but the act of pouring the nuts into a cupped hand and raising that to fill my buccal cavity and masticating the nuts as I savour the taste before swallowing has become something of a regular snack.

So, I walked into a shop and after picking up a few drinks, I asked for peanuts, they were not that obvious looking through the shelves.

I was first presented with a bag of peanuts or groundnuts [1] (Arachis hypogaea), hard-labour peanuts, still in their shells that needed cracking and the skinning of their brown skins before I could eat them.

The rate at which the nuts get consumed would be slowed down considerably and I have never really seen anyone shell all the nuts from the bag first before settling down to consumption, it was cracking one peanut shell at a time, with an average of 2 peanuts, skinning them, then eating.

As anyone would know, groundnuts come out of the ground and cashew [2] nuts hang off the end of the fleshy succulent cashew fruit.

In the beginning before Egusi soup

It reminded me of a backstory I ended up telling the shop-keeper as I said I wanted instant gratification not the drudgery of nut cracking.

In Nigeria we have a very delicious stew which is commonly known by its Yoruba name – Egusi [3] soup – it could be plain, with vegetables, garnished with dried fish pieces and contain fresh fish or meat, however, this is not a recipe; we are going to the genesis of it all.

There are many varieties of melon belonging to the cucurbitaceae [4] plant family which brings together cucumbers, loofas, pumpkins and, watermelons which in this context are fleshy, tasty and full of water, the seeds in the middle are spat out, never eaten.

Egusi comes from watermelons [5], only in this case, the fruity flesh is not considered edible but the seeds are what we are after. I sometimes wonder how they discovered the edibility of those seeds and the trouble that goes into getting at the seeds.

Getting at the seeds is foul

When the melons are mature, just before they are harvested, the melons are punctured with a pointed stake of wood and left to rot. This takes about a week, during which the flesh ferments, begins to decompose and turns watery.

This allows for the pulpy melon fruit to be opened up by hand, scraped unto a special sieve to separate the seeds from the pulp. Picking up these rotten, smelly and fermented melons can be fraught with dangers, though I have not heard of snakes hiding amongst the melons, it is a possibility but dangerous insects do with very painful bites.

More menacingly is a very hairy caterpillar, the hairs excite histamine causing very serious itching and a rash, sometimes it can be very painful too – it is not a job for the squeamish, the end result is however worthwhile.

When the seeds are separated from the pulp, they are left out to dry, firming up the seed casing and ready to be sold.

Hands a-dainty for seed shelling

You can also get the shelled seeds but that costs extra and somehow one cannot vouch for their shelf-life, the lazier cook would go for the blended seeds, which looks very much like Moroccan couscous with an aroma quite close to aniseed, it is oily but I doubt if melon seed oils have any cosmetic value.

The shelling process is a bit of an art, the seed casing is slightly twisted, the top end and bottom end held between the thumb and index finger of each hand and then pulled apart to reveal the white teardrop shaped seed, round on one end and pointed on the other, just about a millimetre thick.

I have never counted the number of seeds that needed shelling for stew making, but it is usually a communal job or a few hands that goes on for a few hours.

Science and engineering have been involved with the Canadians sponsoring a project to help in shelling Egusi seeds and this interesting abstract of a study [6] of the force required to crack a melon seed shell without destroying the seed itself.

The seeds are never washed after this, in some cases, they are roasted before being blended and used in stews, and many people never get to experience the backstory.

As for the making of Egusi soup, you probably can get a recipe [7], but that is not my story.

Sources

[1] Peanut - Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

[2] Cashew - Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

[3] Egusi - Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

[4] Cucurbitaceae - Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

[5] Watermelon - Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

[6] Investigation of Force Required to Crack Melon Seed Shell by Static Loading

[7] Egusi Soup Recipe

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