I wonder if there’s something peculiar about skewers that explains why so many of their names begin with “s,” a thought that occurred to me on one freezing night at a Christmas market in Cologne, Germany, when temperatures skirted minus 13 degrees centigrade and I encountered the Russian skewers known as shashlik for the first time. There are shish kebabs, of course, which originated in Turkey and are now typical of Middle Eastern, Eastern Mediterranean, and South Asian cuisines; there’s South African sosatie, Indonesian sate, Greek souvlaki, and the rods of spiedie in New York. And then there’s Nigeria’s suya.
Suya is Nigerian street food at its finest—think nutty, spicy beef, threaded onto skewers then grilled, the finished sticks cradled in paper or foil with a side of fresh tomatoes, sliced red onions, and a sprinkling of yajin kuli. Yajin kuli is made from yaji—a blend of chiles, ginger, garlic, onions, salt and other spices—and ground kuli kuli, which is essentially dehydrated and defatted groundnut (peanut) paste. Suya originated in the north of Nigeria, where the knowledge and mastery of meat is second to none.
Kuli kuli is made by grinding roasted groundnuts until the mixture almost reaches a nut butter consistency. Often ground chiles and ginger are included in the mix. Water is added and then the mixture is kneaded to form a dough, and, in the process, the oil—groundnut oil—is expelled. The resulting dough is shaped into sticks, balls, crackers, and other shapes and deep fried in groundnut oil. The process stabilizes the kuli kuli and it can be kept at room temperature without going rancid.
For decades, Nigerians in the south of the country—like me—got our suya and yaji from mallams, pastoral nomads from the north versed in the art and spice of meat preservation. They journeyed across the country leaving edible trails of suya spots across Nigeria and West Africa. Growing up, you could only buy suya in the evening, because the mallams spent all day prepping—slicing the meat, dredging it in the yajin kuli, and grilling the meat (it is customary to grill the meat twice: once to cook it, then again just before serving). These days, both suya and yaji are more available than they were a decade ago and we’re all better off because of it.
In form and ingredients, suya is similar to Balinese sate, and while there’s a debate about whether or not peanuts and peanut butter have a tenderizing effect, I believe suya answers the question with a resounding yes. And while the best suya is wrapped in paper—formerly newspaper—or foil and served under the cloak of evening, if you’re stuck at home, as we all are, far from a good suya spot, making a batch of yajin kuli and grilling suya are not out of your reach.
Yajin kuli has a unique, smoky, and complex flavor. It’s increasingly common to find it in West African stores, both physical and online. I’ve lived abroad for many years and one night eleven years ago when I lived in the Netherlands, homesick with an empty jar of yajin kuli, I decided to try to create a yajin kuli marinade instead of a dry rub by using homemade groundnut butter (roasted, unsalted groundnuts blended with groundnut oil). To my surprise, it was a success.
I’ve since altered the recipe by turning to peanut butter powder, combining it with powdered ginger, sweet paprika, onion and garlic powders, the musky floral notes of ground grains of selim and cloves, and a little bit of cayenne for some kick. It’s a nutty, spicy, tangy, and mildly sweet coating that’s as good with chicken, fish, or even some vegetables as it is with the more traditional thinly sliced beef. After the meat is marinated, it’s threaded on skewers and placed over the direct heat of a grill; the rub caramelizes and takes on a bit of smokiness, and it’s ready in no time. Add sweet fresh tomatoes, the bite of thinly sliced red onions and my personal, if untraditional, favorites: crisp lettuce, cilantro, and wedges of lime, and you’re ready. Sliced cucumber, cabbage, and, on occasion, carrots also form worthy sides.