Suya. Home food. One thought and my mouth begins to water – its deliciousness is engraved in the heart, mind and tummy of my seven year old daughter who left Nigeria for the Netherlands 4 years ago as a mere toddler. The flame-grilled, peanut-spiced pieces of beef are one of the few memories she’s preserved, along with the tropical heat.
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 himself into your humble abode to rustle some up and if you are (like me), away from home, in diaspora and hankering after spicy meats of years past, then of course permission is granted to ‘try this at home’.
On the street, it is prepared by Mallams, men from the north of the country, trained in the art and spice of meat preservation. It has very humble origins, being the preserve of pastoral nomads who travelled with their herds of cattle and often had to use the meat of the animals both for food and trade. Thanks to the ‘wandering' of these men, every nook and cranny in every Nigerian city boasts a ‘suya spot’.
So what is suya? It is similar to the Asian saté. Thin strips of steak (sirloin, flank or topside) are coated in a dry peanut rub, flavours heightened by a balanced combination of powders – ginger, garlic, paprika, chilli and salt. The cut of meat matters...but not that much as the marinade tenderizes it wonderfully. Of course each mallam has his own special spice mix. Hours later and meat threaded onto sticks, they are cooked over hot coals till ready, then set aside to await the onslaught of clients at the end of a hard day’s work.
At four or five pm, the suya spots are suddenly transformed into a hive of activity. Amongst the crowds are boys trying to woo girls (rarely the reverse), parents treating kids, colleagues, friends and everyone in between. No one is too rich, too poor, too southern or western, of the right sex, wrong height to get suya from the same open-flamed shop – it is a delicacy that cuts across ever social level one can think off.
As soon as the orders are in, the suya sticks are warmed up again and served in newspapers, meat on sticks or sans, with a sprinkling of the marinade mix, fresh tomato wedges, slices of red onion and for the brave only – slices of fresh hot chilli pepper.
My version works a treat with homemade peanut butter to which the spices are added. In the winter, I’ve availed myself of my oven to grill and in the summer have enjoyed the warmth of my bbq flames.
Its easier to slice the beef if you freeze it for an hour prior to use
You can use store-bought peanut butter but you will need to thin it by gentle heating to which you can add a dash of coconut milk or water to create a thick pouring consistency
The spice measurements are a guide - adjust them to suit your taste.
Note, the best tasting suya is cooked, left to rest for a couple of hours and then reheated gently over the flames...of your BBQ!
- Prep time 40 minutes
- Cook time 40 minutes
- Makes about 12 skewers
250g flank, sirloin or topside (sliced against the grain into thin wide pieces (about 5mm thick and 4-5 cm wide), slightly thicker than carpaccio
1/2 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, skinned
1/4 – 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon chili/cayenne pepper (or less, adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger (or less, adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 -2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
Salt, to taste
Thinly sliced cabbage, fresh red onions, tomatoes and coriander leaves, to serve
- Make a peanut paste: In a food processor or blender, grind the peanuts till they are crushed. The ground nuts will stick to the sides of the mixing container, so using a spatula, loosen bits from the bottom and round the sides. Then add the oil, drizzling in along with a pinch of salt, blending till you get a 'thick cream' consistency. Add the spices and lime juice to the peanut paste, stirring well. Adjust as required.
- Place beef slices in a large bowl. Pour the peanut sauce over it. Using your hands, mix well ensuring the pieces of beef are coated with the sauce. Refrigerate covered and leave to marinate for a few hours or overnight.
- When ready to cook, thread the beef strips onto (soaked wooden) skewers, accordion style so the meat is stretched out, not bunched up.
- You can cook them on a grill pan or the BBQ. Obviously, the smoky BBQ's ones taste much better. Prepare your BBQ - it is ready when 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 about 10 minutes or less, 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, till done. The meat will be soft and tender
- Then take off the heat and allow to rest for an hour or two. Warm gently and serve with thinly sliced cabbage, red onions and tomatoes