The minute I tasted suya in Lagos, I was hooked. I revelled in the juiciness of the grilled meat, which came together harmoniously with the yaji powder (also known as suya powder), in which the suya is marinated, while the heat caused my mouth to tingle. Served with onions, and sometimes tomatoes on the side, the spicy meat skewers also come with extra yaji powder, which you can dip into for enhanced flavour. It is also often eaten with rice pancakes called masa.
So, what is suya? Almost every region in the world has its own version of the kebab—seekh kebab, shashlik, doner kebab. In Nigeria, it is the suya. One of the country’s most popular street foods, it has been around for so long that the history of its origin has passed on into the realm of legend. The most common meat used is beef, and it is always halal (because preparing it any other way has apparently resulted in riots), but ram, chicken, or even offal including kidney, liver, gizzards (of chicken or turkey), and tripe are also on offer. Thinly sliced, the meat is rubbed with the spice mix yaji, a combination of powdered peanuts, paprika, ginger powder, garlic power, onion powder, and Maggi seasoning. The slices are then skewered and grilled on an open charcoal flame. Some joints dip the skewers in hot peanut oil before serving, adding to the already nutty flavour of the spice. According to Babanna Muhammed, whose family runs the 35-year-old Executive Suya Spot, the most popular suya joint in Lagos, “the peanut oil takes away the smokiness from the suya and is good for health.” In other places, skewers are just taken off the flame, chopped up and served with raw onions and yaji powder, but a slathering of peanut oil is a must at Executive Suya Spot. (7 Glover Street, Ikoyi; open daily 11 a.m.-midnight; NGN500/Rs95 per stick.) There is no standard recipe, and each suya joint has a specific, closely guarded, ratio for the spices.
While Nigerians like to stake their claim on suya, it is popular all over West Africa. Most accounts attribute it to pastoral nomads such as the Hausa tribes of northern Nigeria, Cameroon, southern Niger, Ghana and Sudan. They grilled spiced meat on bamboo skewers or their daggers over a campfire to make the first versions of suya. In Hausa, “suya” means “to fry.”
Today, suya has made its way into fine dining as well. Pizze-Riah in Lagos’s expat hub Victoria Island is a far cry from the street-side joint. The casual-chic restaurant is also the only place that serves both beef and chicken suya. (No. 13, Musa Yaradua Street, Victoria Island; open daily 10 a.m.- 1 p.m.; NGN500/Rs95 per stick.)
The dish is part of Nigeria’s culture—outside of the food, suya joints are also popular spots for locals to hang out, and almost every celebration features stalls or a grill serving suya. As 28-year-old Oleyu, who has been selling suya at the Super Suya Spot for 15 years, says, “It is a tradition that is passed on.” (Mega Plaza, 14 Idowu Martins Street, Victoria Island, open daily noon-2 a.m.; NGN500/Rs95 per stick.)
Geetika Sasan Bhandari has been a lifestyle journalist and editor for two decades. She's currently on a sabbatical from full-time work and spends her time binge-watching TV shows, baking, perpetually making travel plans, and occasionally, writing. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.