As a child in Nigeria, my interest in food was incubated by outdoor cooking. At moments like weddings, births, and even the deaths of those who had lived long fruitful lives, people celebrated by cooking a large banquet almost exclusively outdoors on wood and charcoal. The variety of food ranged from savory stews of meat, fish, or combinations of both augmented with multiple rice preparations, grilled or fried meats, and various fritters.
Street food is very defining of various cultures around the world. In Nigeria the most ubiquitous street snack is the kebab-type dish known as suya: Nigeria’s version of seasoned grilled meat on a stick. It’s primarily composed of beef but also includes organ meats and offal. Suya stalls are a mainstay in the southern cities of Nigeria.
Suya in Nigeria is distinguished from similar preparations around the world by its specific spice blend, which is composed primarily of processed peanuts known as kuli-kuli.
Lightly roasted peanuts are crushed fine in a mortar, wrapped in multiple layers of cloth similar to muslin, and squeezed very hard to release and extract the oils. They are then pressed into various shapes and deep fried into hard, aromatic peanut cakes. This is a critical step in the process and flavor; simple roasted or crushed peanuts are not an acceptable substitute.
The remainder of the components are red pepper flakes, powdered ginger, powdered meat bouillon, salt, and uda, a pepper native to various regions in Africa. Uda is from the evergreen tree with the binomial name Xylopia Aetheiopica. Its dried fruits, also known as “Grains of Selim,” are used for both culinary and medicinal applications.
Traditionally the spices are powdered in a mortar like the peanuts. I pulverized the components in a spice grinder until they were a reasonably fine consistency.
Kuli Kuli 220g
Red Pepper 12g
Ginger Powder 100g
Salt 1 Tsp
Uda 20 Pods
Uda and prepared kuli-kuli can be found in most West African grocery stores in major American cities.
The unique and delicious flavor profile of suya spice is compatible with just about any type of meat; in this case I applied it to boneless quail. I brushed the quail lightly with peanut oil and dusted them generously with the suya spice mix.
Traditionally suya is cooked on an open flame, usually over charcoal or wood. The meats are usually sliced very thin so they cook fast on direct heat. In this case I used a slightly more high tech device: a charcoal oven with a sealed chamber that combines all the best attributes of open fire grilling and oven roasting.
I skewered the quail and grilled them over very hot charcoal embers. The sealed oven speeds up the process, resulting in both a nice crust and a juicy roasted bird.
Traditional suya is served sliced with onions and tomatoes. It is not in any way fine cooking or refined cuisine, but this simple street snack contains the heart and soul of Nigeria, utterly delicious and addictive. In this case I elevated it somewhat by using the coal oven, plus a garnish of roasted sungold tomatoes and scallions, a few sliced cucumbers, and a dusting of the spice mixture.