Evi Aki will never forget her first visit to Nigeria at age 10. “My earliest memory is seeing all the suya carts lined up on the street; the smells, the smoke,” Aki, who grew up in Chicago and Atlanta and writes the blog Ev’s Eats, says of that trip to Otu, Nigeria, with her Nigerian-born parents. “Every vendor calling out, beckoning, telling you that their suya is the best. Hundreds of sticks of meat turning over smoky grills, the spice filling the air.”
In her cookbook, Flavours of Africa, Aki describes suya as “the epitome of Nigerian street food”. To make it, thin ribbons of beef are threaded onto skewers, coated in a punchy spice mixture and grilled until lightly charred.
Every cook’s spice blend is different, but yaji or suya spice is based on ground nuts, usually peanuts. The nuts give the blend a lot of texture, and their fat enhances the other flavours in the mixture, which often include ground ginger, cayenne, black or white pepper, as well as granulated garlic and onion. Crushed stock cubes may be added for even more flavour.
Though suya is usually made from meat, suya spice works just as well as a coating for cubes of aubergine, courgette and firm tofu. It’s great on whole or filleted fish or chicken pieces, too, before grilling or roasting.
Aki’s suya spice mixture starts with ground, roasted almonds, a nod to the fact that she’s now based in Los Angeles. “I like to use almond flour, because I like the taste of it,” Aki says, noting that she has also made the spice blend with ground cashews and peanuts. She pairs the almonds with a generous amount of cayenne, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, white pepper and a chicken stock cube – Aki says the Knorr chicken cubes labelled “the taste Nigerians prefer” are her go-to.
The smoked paprika in Aki’s recipe is a clever touch that means you don’t need a grill to make suya at home. Roasted in a hot oven, the skewers will cook evenly all around. As the paprika and cayenne start to sizzle around the meat, they’ll fill your kitchen with the smells Aki remembers from her childhood: smoky and spicy and almost overwhelming with flavour.
Suya is not for those who prefer delicate, subtle flavours. I made it on a hot day and served it with a frothy blend of coconut milk, lime juice and date syrup, poured over crushed ice. That’s not traditional, but the tomato and onion salad is, and it helps cut some of the heat, too. No street vendor worth their salt would make a tame suya, but that’s the beauty of home cooking: even if you don’t eat chillies, there are ways to tweak this recipe to suit a variety of tastes and dietary requirements.
Serves: 4 servings
Active time: 45 minutes | Total time: 1 hour
Make ahead: Stored airtight in a dry, cool, place, the nut and spice mixture may be made up to 1 week in advance.
Storage notes: Leftover skewers may be refrigerated in a covered container for up to 3 days.
Where to buy: Knorr brand chicken stock cubes can be found at well-stocked supermarkets.
Special equipment: 4 (25cm) or 8 (15cm) metal, wooden or bamboo skewers (if using wooden or bamboo skewers, soak in water for 30 minutes before grilling or roasting).
If you’re allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, use any ground nut or seed, or even ground roasted chickpeas.
The stock cube adds lots of flavour, but if you want to omit it, see the notes, below.
Even a little bit of cayenne is too much for some. You can omit it, or use a milder chili powder instead.
If you can’t have garlic or onions, use ground ginger.
Instead of meat, try the spice blend on cubed tofu, aubergine, courgette, chicken or fish.
Notes: To crush the stock cube, use a mortar and pestle, grate it or tap it in a bowl with a spoon until it breaks apart. If you don’t use the stock cube, add ½ teaspoon fine sea salt to the spice mix.
We recommend you make this on an outdoor grill or inside an oven. If you grill the skewers indoors on a stovetop grill or grill pan, turn on a ventilation hood or open a window, as the spice mixture can create some smoke.
3 tbsp finely ground, unsalted roasted peanuts or almonds (28g; may use almond flour)
1 chicken stock cube, preferably Knorr brand, crushed (optional; see notes)
1 tbso cayenne pepper (use less if you prefer less heat)
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp ground white pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp fine sea salt or table salt (see notes)
450g sirloin or braising steak, patted dry and sliced diagonally against the grain into approximately 0.5cm thick, 2.5cm wide strips
1 tbsp vegetable oil, plus more as needed
3 medium tomatoes (425g total), sliced or quartered, for serving
1 small red onion (115g), sliced, for serving
In a medium bowl, mix together the ground nuts, stock cube, if using, cayenne, garlic powder, onion powder, white pepper, paprika and salt.
To grill the skewers: heat a grill to around 200C, or until you can hold your hand over it for only 3 to 4 seconds. Thread the strips of beef onto skewers like a ribbon, several strips per skewer, piercing each slice through at least three times. As you go, push the strips loosely together, leaving only a little exposed skewer between the individual pieces. The strips should be bunched up so that only the edges of the meat will get crispy. Rub the meat with the oil and then use your hands to pack the spice mixture onto the meat in a thick, even layer.
Oil the grill grates; they should smoke slightly. Place the skewers directly on the grill and grill for about 5 minutes, or until the spice mixture forms a crust. Rotate the skewers so they cook evenly all the way around, letting them cook for a total of 10 to 15 minutes, or until the meat is done to your liking.
To roast the skewers: position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 230C (see notes). Lightly oil a large, rimmed baking tray. Evenly space the skewers on the baking tray and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the spice mixture has formed a crust and the meat is done to your liking.
Serve the suya hot, with sliced tomatoes and onions on the side.
Nutrition information per serving (2 skewers), based on 4 | Calories: 356; total fat: 23g; saturated fat: 7g; cholesterol: 85mg; sodium: 553mg; carbohydrates: 13g; dietary fibre: 4g; sugars: 5g; protein: 27g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from ‘Flavours of Africa: Discover Authentic Family Recipes From All Over the Continent’ by Evi Aki.
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