Kunnu Aya, ‘Horchata’ de Chufas ‘Nigerian Style’

Northerners in Nigeria are famous for many things, culinary-wise: they are tray-bearers of dates, kolanuts and alligator pepper; suya merchants of everything from meat kebabs to jerky-style beef kilishi and pounded, shredded Dambu Nama as well as wonderful drink makers. Sometimes I wonder what the repertoire of Nigerian drinks would be like without our North. Take Zobo, a red drink from dried hibiscus calyxes. That’s a northern legacy, as well as Kunnu, milky drinks from cereal, grains and nuts.

Kunulicious Kunucculent Kunu!

One of my friends laughed. “Shoko, don’t you know anything? That’s not Bournvita (a brand of chocolate drink) – that’s kunu.” “Kunu?” I said, overcome with curiosity. “What is that? I don’t think I’ve seen that before.”My friend was surprised.

“Haven’t you been up north before?” I shook my head; this was my first time of crossing the Niger. “Ah, then that explains it. Kunu isn’t widely sold in the South – it’s more popular up here.” I was further intrigued. “I think I’ll get a bottle and find out what it tastes like.”

So I walked over to the nearest vendor and asked for a cup – I didn’t want to buy too much, in case it wasn’t to my taste. So the vendor poured it out, I lifted the cup to my mouth and…

…black and white became colour…

…mono became s t e r e o…

…two dimensions became three…

…and I found that that the single act of allowing this milky brown essence into my universe had changed it unalterably for ever.

The petty day-to-day frustrations no longer felt important; I felt that I had sloughed them off like a snake sheds its skin. Time stood still as I recalibrated my senses to account for this new indescribably wonderful sensation that I was experiencing.

Various flavours of tiger nut milk

Typically, Northern women fill bottles with various types of Kunnu, a milky drink, made with millet, sorghum or tiger nuts; balance them on their heads in huge, silver basins or plastic buckets and hawk. They stop to serve wanting customers in cups, stainless and plastic for mere cash tokens.

A hawker, with her wares balanced efficiently on her head – leaving her hands free!!!

Unfortunately, I’ve never been a customer or client even though I know them well – I am not a big fan of street drinks, which aren’t freshly made before my eyes.


But I am a fan of street ingredients, especially when they are ingredients I love. Northern men can be seen in November and December pushing wheelbarrows full of tiger nuts – fresh, dried, baked, sold by the ‘tin’-ful – tins of evaporated milk are emptied with their tops discarded and are used as measuring cups. These mobile stalls are my market place – they serve me well for pineapples, watermelons and ….tiger nuts.

Port Harcourt-20121113-00398
A wheelbarrow full of tigernuts. L: Fresh; TR: baked; BR: Dried

But I’ve made some of these drinks, and my firm favourite is Kunnu aya, tiger nut milk; made from the same nuts, chufas as the Spanish Horchata de chufas.

Just as Kunnu refers to milky cream drinks made from cereals (millet, sorghum, rice, groundnuts), so does Horchata mean the milky extract from any vegetable source, such as hazelnuts, almonds, barley or rice. In Nigeria, other (common) varieties of Kunnu are Kunnu gyada made from rice/groundnuts (Peanuts) and Kunnu zaki, made from millet.

Scientifically, Cyperus esculentus var. sativus, tiger nut belongs to the plant family Cyperaceae. It is commonly known as the tiger nut, earth almond, chufa, yellow nut sedge or Zulu nuts. To be honest, the tiger nuts aren’t really nuts but are sedges, tubers, grown in soil named after the tiger because their skins sport tan and black speckles.

It is an emergent grass-like plant found to be a cosmopolitan perennial crop, of the same genus as the papyrus plant that is common in seasonally flooded wetlands. This plant was originally native to the Mediterranean region but its cultivation has now spread to many warm countries and has become naturalized in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. It is usually sown in April and picked in November.

The nuts are under-utilized due to lack of information on their nutritional potentials.

Tiger nuts are big on flavor when eaten. Coconut flavor to be exact, just with more crunch, a crunch which is on the scale of the water chestnut, if meatier and less watery. They are generally smaller than hazelnuts, being between half a centimetre to a centimetre and a half in diameter with a tan exterior and a bright creamy interior.

Its interesting that though the nuts taste like coconuts when eaten out of hand, the flavor of the milk extract bears no resemblance to this. Instead, the tiger nut drinks, cream-coloured with a sweet- and slightly sour taste, tend towards nut milks, like almond milk yet are altogether refreshing and best drunk fresh, within 24 – 48 hours. If left for days, they transform and ferment a bit into a kefir-yogurt drink which I don’t find pleasant.


In Nigeria, they are widely eaten by adults and children. You’ll find them fresh (and raw), roasted, baked and sun-dried. I am partial to the fresh variety which like I’ve said makes a refreshing alternative to dairy-free milk and can be used as a flavoring agent for ice cream and biscuits.

Of course, due to the vastness of this country and its multitude of inhabitants, tiger nuts go by different names depending on where you are on the compass.


Arigiza or ayaa rigiza in Hausa
Sebu in Kanuri
Efa in Nupe
Ishoho in Tiv 


Isip akra in Efik


Akihausa in Ibo


Imumu Ofio omu or Erunsha in Yoruba

But it isn’t only liquid pleasures that are to be had – puddings and candy are up for grabs too! According to The Guardian of Nigeria, the Hausas make a sweetmeat by grinding the fresh tubers, straining off the sappy liquid and boiling with wheat flour and sugar. It is stirred constantly, to prevent lumping and cooking is continued till the required sticky pap-like consistency is reached. This is ‘tiger-nut milk’ or in Ghana ‘atadwe milk.’ It is eaten immediately as fermentation sets in quickly rendering the preparation unfit to eat. In the Keta area of Ghana, the sun-dried tubers are ground to a fine powder to which sugar can be added to be stored till required. Roasted tubers may be similarly ground to a powder known in Vhe (Awlan) as fie-dzowe.


I was excited to find the fresh tiger nuts after months of looking out for them, and was determined to make the most of them!

Kunnu Aya, Three Ways


Tigernuts, 2 – 3 cups
2 tablespoons dried hibiscus flowers (Flor de Jamaica)
10 – 12 Cardamom pods
1 teaspoon Alligator pepper/Grains of paradiise
Sugar, to taste


The tiger nuts, fresh or dried are best soaked in water for at least 6 hours prior to making the drink, to ‘soften’, but also to reduce the level of unwanted anti- nutrients such as tannins, alkaloids and polyphenols.


Find tiger nuts
You can’t have Horchata de chufa without tigernuts!
Prepare Tiger nuts

Wash thoroughly in water and remove any stones/twigs and other non-tiger nut things.

Soak overnight, ensuring the nuts are covered with an inch or two of water. The following day, discard soaking liquid, rinse and prepare to blend.

Blend and Flavour

I use 1 part of tiger nuts – to 2/3 parts water. In this case, 1 cup tiger nuts to 2 -3 cups water. These go into a blender and then…


….one blends repeatedly till a slurry forms and froths.


The extras – the flavourings follow and are blended again.  Though the milk on its own is wonderful, I want to experiment a bit more.

The view from the top – I LOVE it!

I divided my batch of nuts into three: one part was combined with dried hibiscus calyxes – I hoped it would take on a some of the rich red colours and a slight tartness. Alas, and probably due to the fact that this was a previously-used batch of dried hibiscus flowers, the colour didn’t come through though a slight tartness did. The resulting drink ended up like a lightly, slightly sour strawberry yogurt drink; batch two combined the nuts with cardamoms and the third batch, was spiced with alligator pepper (cousins to grain of paradise).

B: Dried Hibiscus Calyxes; L: Alligator Pepper (cf. Grains of Paradise); R: Green Cardamom Pods

Pass the mixture through a number of sieves, each with finer holes than the last – I used 3 sieves. You could also use cheese cloth or muslin to facilitate maximum liquid extraction. I discarded some of the ‘chaff’, though I had plans to incorporate it into a cake or even some churro dough, but that will come later.


I like the filtrate to stand, refrigerated for an hour or two, so as to allow the starch fraction settle out.

Chill and Serve

Once this is done, I decant the top liquid, discard the starch and sweeten to taste, with sugar, honey, or simple syrup.

This is refrigerated and best drunk within a day, two at the most, otherwise the result is quite sour!

When it is made commercially, the content is heated to just below boiling point, about 70°C with spices like dandelion, alligator pepper, ginger and licorice with some sugar to taste.


I liked the flavours – especially the pink, hibiscus flavoured variety which should be called Kunnu Aya Zobo, I think! After all Kunnu Aya refers to the milk and Zobo, the hibiscus flavours. It did end up like light and sweetened strawberry yogurt.

The  cardamom flavours also shone, but then I am a cardamom lover. I felt I could have done a bit more with the ‘alligator pepper’ version but that’s one for next time.

Have you tried Horchata de Chufas? What are your favourite nut milk combinations?


  1. This is a wonderful piece. I came to it because I made tiger nut milk yesterday, and it’s already fermented a bit, and I wondered if fermented tiger nut milk was actually a thing that people drank, because I like you, find it not pleasant (and I do find kefir delicious) — so just wondering if fermenting it is part of food culture somewhere…. thanks….

  2. At last a comprehensive on my fav kunu! Thank you kitchen butterfly for this very informing piece, the first i ve read that actually informed me!

  3. Tanx a lot. I was tinking kunnu can only be made from cereals like maize, sorghum nd millet. Neva knew it cud b made from tigernut.

  4. Hi there! I am so happy to find recipes not from Spain for a vegetable domesticated and native to Africa, it’s surprisingly hard to come by.

    I bumped into this blog while researching and growing plants of African origin (okra, rice, sesame, indigo, cotton and the like) brought and cultivated by Antebellum Black populations in the United States so that we may continually utilize them, however I have a problem; in this case Chufa in other traditions or contemporary recipes (other than the sweetmeat).

    Other than adding to churro batter can you think of any other applications for this amazing little plant?

    • Thanks Levi – I appreciate your comment.

      Basically I’m thinking two things with the chufas – drinks and bakes.

      Some ideas on cooking & baking
      Grinding the nuts and using the ‘meal’ as a flour substitute so in pancakes, bread dough and other baked goods
      Using the extracted milk as a cooking base, similar to how coconut milk is used

      Those are the things milling about in my head. If I think of more, I’ll get in touch. Thanks again for stopping by – I like the nobility of your desire – its all about sharing history, culture and traditions.

  5. You did well gathending all d names of tiger nuts. In Yoruba, its also simply known as Ofio. Waow, memories. Do they have them in England? Mind u, I haven’t read any other page here. u other than. this so could nu post kunun zaki recipe?did u know dat alligator pepper is called clove? Not trying 2 b big headed but I used to b confused wen i heard d word alligator pepper.
    I see u have a healthy food link (yet to browse). As Nigerians eat alot of refined flour, i recently made ‘dough-like’ swallow with barley flour. Hmm…was it nice? Just thought I’d share that one.
    Await cooking methods for kunun zaki..its d bit about mixing one part and keeping it aside that gets me confused or do u just make like ogi and put just water on it after preparation.

    • Thanks Ronke, I’d captured the ‘Ofio’ name already.

      I dont know if they have Tigernuts in England. Your best bet would be a Spanish store or supermarket where they are known as chufas.

      I dont have the recipe for Kunnu zaki, but here’s a recipe which gives some instructions on how to make it: http://www.9jafoodie.com/2012/12/how-to-make-nigerian-kunun-zaki/. I havent tested it before

      On clove-aliigator pepper – they are not the same. They are completely different spices, with different flavours. Cloves resemble mini lamps, with one dark brown, rounded end, attached to a short stalk. Alligator pepper is (cousin to) grains of paradise, it comes from a pod and resembles a reddish-brown pyramid with a white top. If you search via google, you’ll be able to spot the difference.


  6. Oh my! Not only do you blog about my absolutely favourite drink in the world, but you also provide detailed instructions on how to make it!

    You, Ms. Kitchen Butterfly, have absolutely made my day! And you have done the world a huge service by promoting this drink that brings light into the darkness, and clarity to confusion.

    Thank you so much!

  7. I’m from Ghana, and I do remember atadwe milk fondly. I can’t recall the taste now, but I know it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever drank.

  8. thank you for your wonderful posts, you are doing a great job. The first time i ever tasted kunnu aya was last year while i was an undergraduate in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. My twin brother and I had just finished our lectures that afternoon and we both were going outside the school. On our way out, we stopped to buy recharge cards and he asked if i had ever tasted kunnu aya. I said no (trust me i’m not a fan of street food especially those sold in Northern Nigeria) he told me i would fall in love with it. Before i tasted it ,i had the intention of taking a sip just to please him but when i started, i almost finished a bottle. The taste was heavenly. To cut the story short i became a fan of kunnu aya. It’s also my favourite in the kunnu family.i hope to try this soon.

  9. Thank you for the introduction to Tiger Nuts! I adore learning about foods that are new to me. This is one of the reasons I am so fond of your blog! Rather than photos and recipes of the same ‘ol usual recipe I always learn while bring entertained when I visit your piece of the universe!

  10. I am not sure if you received my previous message ! I wrote it then disappeared!
    Was saying your milk and Zobo drinks look delicious they way milk shakes do! I want to bite into those tiger nuts! I love that you are focusing on yr country’s heritage and goods.. Although I do also like your French self:)
    Well written and photographed!!!!xxxxx

    • Thanks Lara, most especially for alerting me to the fact you couldn’t comment on my post! I love my French self too but it is a real delight for me to share my Nigerian cuisine with the world and show how similar we are. It makes it a smaller, cozier place, non?

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