Talking About Suya, Nigerian Streetfood
By Ozoz Sokoh
Suya – one thought and my mouth begins to water. Its deliciousness is tattooed on the hearts, minds and bellies of almost every Nigerian. My most poignant memory is five years old, from when we lived in The Netherlands.
It’s the year 2010 and we’ve been here for three years. My daughters who were two and four years old when they left their motherland, know Suya like they know their names. At five and seven, they’ve preserved only a few memories – flame-grilled, peanut-spiced pieces of beef and the embrace of tropical heat are two.
Suya is Nigerian street food at its most popular – it is never made at home. Well, almost never. The exceptions? If you invite the ‘Suya man’ to your humble abode to rustle some up say for a big party and if you are away from home – in diaspora, hankering after spicy meats of your birth land. Then, and only then is permission granted.
I make it often, with peanut butter instead of using Yaji or Tankora – the suya spice. This dry rub of peanut powder, ginger, garlic, paprika, chilli, salt with a few other additions isn’t easy to find.
Most cultures feature grilled meat on sticks, often as part of their street food culture, from Shish Kebabs which originated in Turkey and are now typical of Middle Eastern, Eastern Mediterranean and even South Asian cuisine to Shashlik, of Russian origin and quite popular at Christmas markets across Germany. I remember thinking on one freezing night in Cologne when temperatures skirted minus 13 degrees centigrade, how the names of many grilled skewers begin with S, from Nigerian Suya to South African Sosatie, Indonesian Saté, Greek Souvlaki, Spiedie rods from the state of New York and Shashlick.
Historical evidence suggest that across Africa, Suya and its compatriots originated from pastoral nomads – West African Fulani/ Hausas from Cameroun to Niger and parts of Sudan; and the North African Tuareg and Berbers. These groups travel with herds of likestock and often use the meat of selected animals for food and trade. It is thought that these were from a time when they sat around camp fires, cooking grilled meats, skewered on swords and daggers.
In Nigeria, the ‘Suya men’ are called Mallams – men, skillful in the art and spice of meat preservation and preparation. I wonder if female Suya preparers exist for I’ve never met one. Anyway, thanks to the ‘wandering’ of these men, every nook and cranny in every Nigerian city boasts at least one correct ‘Suya spot’.
So what is Suya? Generally, it is grilled strips of beef coated in Yaji or Tankora. This combination works as tenderizer and flavor maker and as one can imagine, every Mallam has his own special blend.
‘My’ Mallam, Mamanga, who now supplies me with his wonderful blends makes two kinds – a slightly coarser, deeper red blend for marinating the meat; and a lighter, finer blend for serving alongside the cooked meat.
Most Suya preparation begins early in the morning with the purchase of fresh cuts of meat, prepared in the manner of Halal. Meat is sliced ‘with technique’ to produce tender cuts – though judgment of ‘tenderness’ varies and then its spiced. What follows is the threading on sticks and cooking over hot coals till ready. The sticks of Suya are then set aside, awaiting the onslaught of customers at the end of a hard day’s work.
At four or five pm, the Suya spots really come alive. Naked bulbs in glass display cases house row after row of cooked beef, as well as chicken, ram, goat, gizzards and offal – tripe, kidney and liver.
In the most popular Suya joints, you might meet a crowd, thick with couples and friends; parents – buying some for their children who aren’t a common sight at these spots; colleagues and everyone in between. Here, no one is too rich, too poor, too southern or western, of the right sex, wrong height, whatever to get Suya from the same open-flamed shop – it is a delicacy that cuts across all social strata.
As soon as the orders are in, the Suya sticks are warmed up and set upon newspapers. You can choose to have the meat deftly sliced off, or to remain on sticks. You generally get a sprinkling of the yaji, fresh tomato wedges, slices of red onion and for the brave only – slices of fresh hot chilli pepper. White cabbage features in some spots.
This is often enough. Other popular accompaniments in the North, the ‘home’ of Suya include Masa – a sour, chewy fermented rice pancake with holes – which remind me of English crumpets; and Gurasa, similar to Arabic Khubz/ pita. This specialty of Kano is baked in a tanderu, (cousin to the tandoor?) clay oven and served for stuffing.
Fast forward to 2015. I’m back home in Nigeria and suya and its spices aren’t hard to find.
If however, you live abroad, Nigerian or not and want to rustle some up in your kitchen, know that peanut butter – homemade or storebought would do nicely.
Ingredients, makes a dozen skewers/sticks
250g beef steak (sliced against the grain into thin (slightly thicker than carpaccio), wideish pieces
¾ – 1 cup peanut butter, gently heated with ¼ cup of water to loosen
1 teaspoon chili pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 -2 tablespoons lime juice
To serve: Fresh red onions, tomatoes, cabbage, chili peppers and coriander leaves, to serve
- It’s easier to slice the beef if you freeze it for an hour prior to use
- Feel free to use chicken, or other meats – this has worked well with swordfish!
- Add a dash of coconut milk or water to the peanut butter while heating gently till you get a thick pouring consistency
- Adjust the spices to suit your taste, my measurements are just guide
- If using wooden skewers, soak for at least half an hour to prevent them from burning on the grill
Make the peanut paste by combining all the ingredients, till well blended. Adjust to taste.
In a large bowl, place beef strips. Pour peanut sauce over it, then using your hands, mix well ensuring the pieces of beef are coated with the sauce.
Leave to marinate for a few hours or overnight. When ready to cook, thread them onto (soaked wooden) skewers, accordion style so the meat is stretched out, not bunched up.
You can grill them in a pan, the oven or on the barbeque. I’ve done all of the above but the most authentic method of course, is over the fire.
Heat up your grill… till the coals are red hot and have a layer of grey ash. Carefully place the skewers on an oiled grill rack.
Let cook for a few minutes, and then turn over and cook the other side. The sticks should be cooked in less than 10 minutes, depending on how thick your slices of meat are.
If they aren’t ready after 10 minutes – and you should notice a change in colour, take them off direct heat and let them cook slowly, checking for doneness every couple of minutes.
Serve as you like, with the suggested items or those of your own choosing. Either way, enjoy.