IIt was death, in the end, that led me to suya’s spot. This was the epidemic-stifled February of 2021, when a psychedelic sense of emotional exhaustion and a return to a semblance of normalcy reigned at once within and out of our collective reach. Word got through that one of my aunts died in Lagos. Not from covid but from a sudden heart attack. It’s hard to know what to do in moments of sadness at the best of times. But there and then, as air travel remained virtually impossible and our vast and widely dispersed Nigerian family did not feel further fragmented or isolated, it was all the more difficult.
The moment seemed to summon all my mother, my brothers and I could muster; She called for the comforting certainty of a dish of roast beef, strongly spiced and with the deep umami of roasted peanuts, practically a Nigerian way of life. Yes, the moment called for suya. And so I found myself outside the commercial kitchen of Haji Soya in an industrial estate in south London, waiting for my order. Waiting, really, is a revival, an edible consolation wrapped in pink butcher paper.
Given our recent family history, it is not particularly surprising that this is the most convenient food. Suya has been a growing presence in our lives for nearly 15 years. Fixed handrail in times of celebration or consolation. Suya was the thing their cousins would reach out to at birthday parties, each happily perspiring as they smashed toothpicks into cloves of tender meat. This was the unanimously appreciated offering brought to christenings, wedding anniversaries, and Christmas dinners.
One of my primary memories of returning to Nigeria for a funeral in 2010 was unidentified men preparing an outdoor grill after waking, tender steaks beaten on sticks, sprinkled with bright yagi spices rubbing the color of Wotsit dust, and ready to cook beside a dirt road. Regardless of the context, if any kind of occasion, suya was created. Having been barely in my personal orbit for the first half of my life, now, ritual as food, seems to have a special and sacred allure.
This heightened vision and obsession was not limited to my family. In London, in popular restaurants like Chishuru and Ikoyi (two Michelin stars), high-quality rustic suya has made its way onto the menus. Elsewhere, neighborhood success stories such as Suya Republick in Manchester and Suya Hut from Coventry have emerged. Chef Zoe Adonyoh has become a prominent evangelist of the magical and addictive properties of yaji and chichinga, the Ghanaian equivalent. Although it remains relatively unknown outside of black British communities, public demand has clearly turned suya into the nearly ubiquitous tipping point you would imagine once it was applied to something like junk chicken.
“I would say it is now second only to jollof rice in popularity,” says author and Nigerian food expert Yemisi Aribisala. “There’s something about it like a spice that almost feels like a drug.” So what exactly is fueling this psychedelic impulse and the growing cult-like fervor? What is the truth of the birth together covered in legend? How far can this fiery African culinary phenomenon go?
Let’s start with the thorny issue of origin. Suya, as a seasoning style and method of cooking, has its roots in the ethnic Hausa group, who hail from the predominantly Muslim northern regions of Nigeria and neighboring West African countries. Its name, sometimes spelled “sooya”, is thought to be a misrepresentation of the term “tsire”: the term Hausa that loosely translates to “prepared meat”. Given that those in northern Nigeria would, historically, be primarily responsible for livestock and peanut cultivation, he sees these two vital components of suya be brought together in some form. Add to these indigenous barbecue practices, as well as the wave of internal migration and tribal mixing that followed Nigeria’s independence in 1960, and you have the conditions that were necessary for the development and spread of suya.
However, a combination of historical factors that contribute to explaining the spread of suya do not get to the core of its unique appeal. Related barbecue traditions extend across Africa but few have crossed, in the UK at least, the same way as suya. Her collisions of contrasting texture, sweetness, and lip-scorching heat are distinct but seem to spark some deeper racial fondness. It is, as Nigerian poet Inwa Elams put it in his essay A Brief History of Suya, “a completely new longing but very familiar and familial.”
How can we isolate the peculiarities of this longing? Well, for me, Suya’s primary allure is three times as much. Kind of the Holy Trinity. The first is the way authentic soya — which traditionally consists of lean beef but can also mean chicken, liver, giblets, or the curly, chewy lengths of honeycomb tripe known as shaki — is grilled not once but twice. Sliced coarse and thin on dangling wooden sticks, initially cooked over indirect smoky heat and set to one side, before quickly dipped in a saucepan of vegetable oil (or sometimes, beef fat) and dial, the flash-flash provokes melting tenderness and chops Brittle, dark crunchy. At this point, the cleaver comes swaying swayam, before scraping the flesh into the tin foil and the shredded newspaper.
The second major element is the accompanying adornment; Sliced onions and raw tomatoes that help cut up the greasy burn and incorporate them into a kind of beef salad. Which means he is very Nigerian.
Third, and perhaps most important, is the yaji himself. In its simplest form, a suya spice rub contains ginger, roasted peanuts (most classic, in the form of a mashed, dried, and rehydrated snack known as kuli kuli), and dried chilies. Although its temperature is complex and not sharp, it must also be clear enough to cause a kind of gentle and wonderful pain. The thing about eating [suya] “Do you feel it in your eyes, in your nose, on your face,” Aripisala says, laughing. “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.”
Under this condition, the peanuts are burned, however, each yaji has his own secrets and changes his signature. Adds plenty of geranium than proper or powdered broth. Some, Aribisala notes, are ground in kola nuts to give a back touch of bitterness and a caffeine buzz. My first taste of proper Nigerian soya came via a parcel bought by the Lagos roadside and – after some possible bribery from a customs official – smuggled into the UK by a savvy relative. Anyone with acceptable store-bought yaji and an average steak-cooking ability can make something recognizable as suya. But the real stuff? The stuff that leaves you with a wet brow, no lust spurs, and cheerful despondency clutching napkins and a bottle of beer sweating? Well, that is sacred and rare; It’s orange gold polished across borders, delivered 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 in particular. In an eating culture that often centers around the house, authentic suya—formed by generations of Hausa barbecue traditions and the silence intricacies of each yaji blend—is that rare thing everyone is happy to pay for. Suya’s status as a healing and unanimously agreed-upon pleasure lends itself to a better focus on exhilarating rituals to share with people.
When I think about it, I think of my 12-year-old nephew’s babbling smile after his cautious first taste; I think of the suya spot on the beach in Lagos – where my mother’s merciless bargaining and hilarious messes almost cut the tears of two young roasters – pulling orange-stained chicken nuggets out of wet paper as the sun sets, jockeys in filthy soccer jerseys rushing past I think of standing in Line up on Fridays at Angel’s Bakery in Peckham, drinking in Yoruba jokes, gossips, and Afrobeats on the stereo.
Suya’s surging rush of endorphins is addictive and ephemeral and seems easy to replicate. The factors you envision will continue to accelerate its move toward the mainstream. But it may be—like all culturally meaningful foods, and rituals—the moments facilitated by their sharp brilliance that are true and lasting ecstasy.
That day, after my aunt passed away, I finally got carefully wrapped bundles of beef and chicken soy and headed to my mom’s house, intent on stopping by my brother next. My mom and I greeted each other at the doorstep, with a socially distant approximation of a hug, expressed our shock and sadness, and then briefly discussed early plans for a funeral we should attend on Zoom. I handed her the plastic food bag and she threw it in. “Ah, Jimmy, that is too much,” she said, looking really angry at the imagined cost and extravagance. But, of course, she took a small warm parcel for herself and thanked me. Because that’s the other thing in suya. Those of us who love it understand what it stands for. Everyone without exception is helpless in front of her mysterious fiery power.
Jimmy Famorewa is Evening StandardHead restaurant critic and author The Settlers: Journeys Through Food, Faith, and Culture in Black African London (Bloomsbury, £18.99). To order your copy for £16.52 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Zoe Alakija Vegetable Kebab with Soya Mix
After my father finished work, my family would meet at the Ibadan Polo Club for a cold drink and a plate together. Add this vegan kebab to the spice mix with extra roasted peanuts to create a crunchy topping. Ose oji sauce, which originated from the Igbo people of Nigeria, is the perfect accompaniment.
Roasted unsalted peanuts 300 gr
garlic powder 1½ tsp
vegetable broth cube 1, collapsed
Cayenne pepper 2 teaspoons (to taste)
Red pepper 2 teaspoons
ground ginger 2 teaspoons
ground carnation ½ teaspoon
spices ½ teaspoon
ground nutmeg ½ teaspoon
good salt 1 teaspoon (to taste)
chickpea flour 180 grams
Dairy-free milk 195 ml
yellow tongue 1
Courgettes 1 medium
red onion 1
Red pepper 2, classified
round mushroom 200 grams
For Oz Oji Sauce
Unsalted peanut butter 300 gr
ground cayenne pepper 1 tablespoon
ground nutmeg 1 teaspoon
good salt ½ teaspoon
Heat the oven to a temperature of 180 ° C. Soak 12 wooden skewers in water for 15 minutes. Whisk peanuts in a food processor for a few seconds, until lightly blended, then in a large bowl, whisk together garlic powder, broth cube, spices, and salt.
Place the chickpea flour and milk in a medium bowl and whisk together with a pinch of salt until you have a smooth, thick mixture.
Lift the heavens and its tail, then cut the skin along it, trying not to cut the flesh. Repeat along the opposite side and remove the skin. Cut the plantain, zucchini, onion, and red pepper into round pieces, trying to keep the sizes the same. Keep mushrooms whole. Assemble the kebabs by gently pushing the vegetables alternately along the skewers.
Using tablespoons, coat each kebab in the mixture. Allow any excess mixture to drip into the bowl, then roll the kebabs onto a plate of the peanut-spice mixture.
Transfer to a baking tray lined with tin foil and cook in the center of the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
To make the uzi oji, mix the peanut butter, spices, and salt together in a saucepan and heat over medium-low heat.
Serve the kebabs hot, drizzled with an ouzi-oji drizzle. Top with crushed toasted peanuts and a sprinkle of cilantro, if you like, keeping any extra sauce on the side for dipping.