‘I think of suya and I’m on a Lagos beach with Mum’: celebrating Nigeria’s spice dish | West African food and drink

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It was death, ultimately, that had led me to the suya spot. This was the pandemic-throttled February of 2021, when a drugged sense of emotional exhaustion reigned and a return to something like normality felt at once within our collective grasp and agonisingly out of reach. Word had come through that one of my aunts had died in Lagos. Not from Covid but of a sudden heart attack. It is hard to know what to do in moments of grief at the best of times. But there and then, as air travel remained a virtual impossibility and our vast, widely dispersed Nigerian family had never felt more atomised or isolated, it was even harder.

The moment, it seemed, called for whatever socially distanced togetherness my mother, brothers and I could muster; it called for the comforting certainty of a barbecued beef dish, vigorously spiced and with the deep umami of roasted peanuts, that is practically a Nigerian way of life. Yes, the moment called for suya. And so, that is how I found myself outside Alhaji Suya’s commercial kitchen on a south London industrial estate, waiting for my order. Waiting, really, for enlivening, edible solace wrapped in pink butcher’s paper.

Looking at our recent family history, it is not especially surprising this would be the food that felt most appropriate. Suya had been an ever-growing presence in our lives for approaching 15 years; a steadying handrail in times of celebration or commiseration. Suya was the thing that cousins communed over at birthday parties, each of them sweating happily as they jabbed toothpicks into tender lobes of meat. It was the unanimously appreciated offering brought along to christenings, wedding anniversaries and Christmas dinners.

One of my prime memories of returning to Nigeria for a funeral in 2010 was of unknown men setting up an outdoor grill after the wake, and beaten-thin steaks being threaded on to sticks, sprinkled with a livid yaji spice rub the colour of Wotsit dust, and readied for cooking beside a dirt road. No matter the context, if it was any sort of an occasion, then suya was made to happen. Having barely been in my personal orbit for the first half of my life, now, as ritual as much as food, it seemed to have an particular, sacred allure.

And this rise in visibility and obsession wasn’t limited to my family. In London, at acclaimed restaurants such as Chishuru and (two-Michelin-starred) Ikoyi, high-grade riffs on suya made their way on to menus. Elsewhere, neighbourhood success stories such as Manchester’s Suya Republick and Coventry’s Suya Hut emerged. Chef Zoe Adjonyoh became a notable evangelist for the magical, addictive properties of yaji and chichinga, its Ghanaian equivalent. Though it remains relatively unknown outside Black British communities, public demand has clearly shunted suya to the tipping point of near ubiquity that you imagine once applied to something like jerk chicken.

Jimi Famurewa in Lagos in 2019. Photograph: Jimi Famurewa

“I would say that now it’s a close second to jollof rice in terms of popularity,” says the author and Nigerian food expert Yemisi Aribisala. “There is just something about it as a seasoning that’s almost like a drug.” So what exactly is it fuelling this narcotic rush and growing, cult-like fervour? What is the truth of suya’s myth-shrouded birth? And just how far can this fiery est African culinary phenomenon go?

Let us start with the thorny question of origin. Suya, as both a seasoning style and method of cooking, has its roots in the Hausa ethnic group, who hail from the predominantly Muslim northern regions of Nigeria and neighbouring west African countries. Its name, sometimes written as “sooya”, is thought to be a corruption of “tsire”: a Hausa term that loosely translates as “prepared meat”. Given that, historically, those in Nigeria’s north would be primarily responsible for rearing cattle and growing groundnuts, it holds that these two vital suya components would inevitably be brought together in some form. Add to this indigenous barbecue practices, plus the wave of internal migration and tribal mixing that followed Nigeria’s independence in 1960, and you have the conditions that were necessary for suya to develop and spread.

Still, a set of historic contributing factors that go some way to explaining suya’s proliferation do not quite get to the heart of its unique appeal. Related grilling traditions span Africa but few have crossed over, in the UK at least, in the same way as suya. Its collisions of contrasting texture, sweetness and lip-scorching heat are distinct but seem to rouse some deeper, elemental fondness. It is, as the Nigerian poet Inua Ellams puts it in his essay A Brief History of Suya, “a longing altogether new but deeply familiar and familial”.

So how to isolate the specifics of this longing? Well, to me, suya’s core appeal is threefold. A holy trinity of sorts. First is the way that authentic suya – which traditionally comprises lean beef but can also mean chicken, liver, gizzards, or stretchy, wrinkled lengths of honeycomb tripe known as shaki – is grilled not once but twice. Cut into ragged, thin strips on drooping wooden sticks, it is initially cooked over indirect, smoky heat and set to one side, before a quick dunking in a pot of vegetable oil (or, occasionally, rendered beef fat) and a to-order, flash-searing that elicits both melting tenderness and scraggy, darkly seared crispy bits. At that point, the suyaman’s cleaver comes thudding down, before scraping the meat into foil and scrunched newspaper.

Jimi Famurewa with his mother, Kofo, on Oniru beach in Lagos. Photograph: Jimi Famurewa

The second key element is the accompanying garnishes; raw sliced onion and tomatoes that help cut through the fatty burn and cohere into a kind of brusque, bovine salad. Which is to say, an extremely Nigerian one.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the yaji itself. In its simplest form, a suya spice rub will contain ginger, roasted peanuts (most classically, in the form of a mashed, dehydrated and refried snack known as kuli kuli) and dried chilli pepper. Though its heat is complex rather than blunt, it should also be pronounced enough to induce a kind of craveable, exquisite pain. “The thing about eating [suya] is that you feel it in your eyes, in your nose, on your face,” says Aribisala, with a laugh. “It’s an experience. And I suppose the thing that eludes some people is that it’s almost like you’re trying to kill yourself.”

Beneath that requisite, peanutty burn, however, each yaji has its own secrets and signature variations. Many add musky grains of selim or bouillon powder. Some, as Aribisala notes, grind in kola nuts to impart a back note of bitterness and a caffeine buzz. My first taste of proper Nigerian suya came via a package that was bought by a Lagos roadside and – after some likely bribing of a customs official – smuggled into the UK by a canny relative. Anyone with a passable, shop-bought yaji and middling steak-cooking ability can make something recognisable as suya. But the real stuff? The substance that leaves you damp-browed, breathless with desire and grasping with exhilarated desperation for napkins and a perspiring bottle of beer? Well, that is sacred and rare; that is orange gold to be muled across borders, and handed over with an air of illicit drama.

And, for me, the mystery and mastery of the dish is one of the things that makes it so revered among west Africans especially. In an eating culture that is often very home-centred, authentic suya – shaped by generations of Hausa grilling traditions and the hush-hush complexities of each yaji blend – is that rare thing everyone is happy to pay for. Suya’s status as a treat and unanimously agreed-upon pleasure clears out space to better focus on the joyful ritual of sharing it with people.

When I think of it, I think of my 12-year-old nephew’s delirious grin after his first, cautious taste; I think of a suya spot on the beach in Lagos – where my mum’s merciless haggling and playful jibing almost reduced two young grillmen to tears – pulling shreds of orange-stained chicken from soggy paper as the sun went down, and horseriders in grimy football shirts galloped past; I think of queueing for Friday suya at Angel’s Bakery in Peckham, drinking in the Yoruba jokes, chatter and cranked Afrobeats on the stereo.

Suya’s surging endorphin rush is addictive, ephemeral and seemingly easy to replicate; factors that you imagine will continue to speed its move towards the mainstream. But it may be – like all culturally meaningful, ritualised foods – the moments that its acute brilliance facilitates are the real, lasting high.

That day, after my aunt’s death, I finally got my carefully wrapped packages of beef and chicken suya and drove on to my mum’s house, intending to stop at my brother’s afterwards. My mum and I greeted each other on the doorstep, with a socially distanced approximation of a hug, expressed our shock and sadness, then briefly discussed the early plans for a funeral we’d have to attend on Zoom. I handed her the plastic bag of food and she peered into it. “Ah, Jimi, this is too much,” she said, looking genuinely irritated at the imagined expense and wastefulness. But, of course, she took a little warm parcel for herself and thanked me. Because that is the other thing about suya. Those of us who love it understand what it represents. And all, without exception, are helpless before its fiery, mystic power.

Jimi Famurewa is the Evening Standard’s chief restaurant critic and author of Settlers: Journeys Through the Food, Faith and Culture of Black African London (Bloomsbury, £18.99). To order your copy for £16.52 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Zoe Alakija’s suya-battered vegetable kebabs

Photograph: Zoe Alakija

After my dad finished work, my family would meet at the Ibadan polo club for a cold beer and a plate of suya. These veg kebabs up the spice mix with extra roasted peanuts to make a crunchy coating. Ose oji sauce, originating from the Igbo people in Nigeria, is the ideal accompaniment.

Serves 6
For the veg kebabs
roasted unsalted peanuts 300g
garlic powder 1½ tsp
vegetable stock cube 1, crumbled
cayenne pepper 2 tsp (to taste)
paprika 2 tsp
ground ginger 2 tsp
ground cloves ½ tsp
allspice ½ tsp
ground nutmeg ½ tsp
fine salt 1 tsp (to taste)
chickpea flour 180g
dairy-free milk 195ml
yellow plantain 1
courgette 1 medium
red onion 1
red peppers 2, deseeded
button mushrooms 200g

For the ose oji sauce
smooth unsalted peanut butter 300g
ground cayenne pepper 1 tbsp
ground nutmeg 1 tsp
fine salt ½ tsp

Preheat the oven to 180C fan/gas mark 6. Soak 12 wooden skewers in water for 15 minutes. Pulse the peanuts in a food processor for a couple of seconds, until lightly blended, then shake them on to a large plate with the garlic powder, stock cube, spices and salt.

Put the chickpea flour and milk in a medium bowl and whisk together with a pinch of salt until you have a smooth, thick batter.

Top and tail the plantain, then score the skin down the length of it, trying not to cut through to the flesh. Repeat down the opposite length and remove the skin. Chop up the plantain, courgette, onion and red peppers into chunks and rounds, trying to keep the sizes broadly the same. Keep the mushrooms whole. Assemble the kebabs by gently pushing alternating vegetables along the skewers.

Using large spoonfuls, coat each kebab in the batter. Let any excess batter drip off into the bowl, then roll the kebabs across the plate of peanuts and spice mix.

Transfer them to a tin-foil-lined baking tray and cook in the centre of the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

For the ose oji, stir together the peanut butter, spices and salt in a saucepan and warm up over a medium-low heat.

Serve the kebabs hot, drizzled with the ose oji. Top with crushed roasted peanuts and a sprinkling of coriander, if you like, keeping any extra sauce on the side for dipping.

From Afro Vegan by Zoe Alakija (Hoxton Mini Press, £20). To order a copy for £17.40 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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