'Yemisi Awosan Has the Secret Sauce to West African Cuisine-And She Wants to Share It With You
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As a University of Massachusetts Amherst student, 'Yemisi Awosan struggled to find ingredients-like dawadawa (African locust beans)-to make Nigerian dishes for dinner parties. "Food was a connection to home for me," says the Egunsi Foods founder. Named for a Nigerian melon seed (egusi or egunsi) that's celebrated for its nutrition (it's rich in protein) and versatility in cooking, the Harlem, New York, company's ready-to-heat starters, sauces, and soups (many are vegan) are sold online and at select New York City grocers, like Whole Foods Market's Harlem store. Whether it's in the form of her Obe Ata Soup (West African tomato soup) or the Ata Din Din Sauce (African red pepper sauce), "The way I express my culture is through the medium of food," Awosan explains.
"I started cooking because I needed it. I took it for granted when I got to university. I was craving Nigerian food," she recalls. Awosan's mom dictated Nigerian recipes over the phone. And her best friend, who was Korean, cooked her native food, which they were able to share at dinner parties. It was then that Awosan realized ingredients overlap across cultures but employ different techniques in recipes. "We use tomatoes. Americans use tomatoes," she says. "And we use beef while Americans use beef. But we might put everything together in a different way."
Cooking Up a New Idea
Awosan emigrated to the U.S. with her family as a teen. A career buying casual china and men's furnishings for Macy's taught her that "you're also coming up with strategies, and connecting with people to build the brand and listening to customers," she says. Client feedback from her catering service served as a focus group to launch Egunsi Foods in 2017. "A lot of that was informing me that people do want this product. I have to test before I jump or leap into any product," she says.
Connecting with farmers, Awosan sources unrefined palm oil from Ghana and honey beans (ewa oloyin) from Nigeria and egunsi seeds. "They're sweeter and creamier, part of the black-eyed pea family," she says about the honey beans. "Our palm oil is different from Asia. We use ethical farmers, not a big conglomerate. In West Africa we don't have that issue with deforestation." Sourcing from farms in New Jersey, upstate New York, and Massachusetts is another mantra of hers.
"When I started to do my research [I learned] a lot of the food in West Africa has commonalities," she says. For instance, red-tomato sauces and stews, as well as black-eyed peas, are a staple in Ghanian and Nigerian recipes. "But the way Nigerians make it is different." She worked with Cornell University's Food Science researchers to lock in a fresh taste that endures a 100-day shelf life. "I want the customer to open the jar and say, 'Oh, wow, this tastes like something I would taste at home.'"
What's Being Served Next
"Through the pandemic we received a lot of growth online," says Awosan. Soon, she'll move the company's fulfillment center from New York City to Youngstown, Ohio, to cut down on shipping costs across the country. In November, she debuted pepper soup, which is commonly gifted to West African women who have just given birth, folding in bone broth and African calabash nutmeg. Available in three flavors-Lemongrass Chicken Pepper, Mushroom Pepper, and Crayfish Chicken Pepper-the lemongrass hails from Oko Farms in Brooklyn, New York.
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