Suya, the thin-sliced spiced meat, unites Nigeria
AP Photo | Sunday Alamba
LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — As night falls across Nigeria, men fan the flames of charcoal grills by candlelight or under naked light bulbs, the smoke rising in the air with the smell of spices and cooking meat.
Despite the sometimes intense diversity of faith and ethnicity in this nation of 160 million people, that thinly sliced meat — called suya — is eaten everywhere. By everyone. Whether from an open-air pit in the country's Muslim north or a roadside stand in its Christian south, the food remains cheap enough for most to afford in a nation where the majority earn less than $2 a day.
And for a foreign journalist who logs so much time on the road, suya remains my favorite dinner while traveling. I used to never like spicy food, but living in Nigeria forces one to make peace with a constant burning of the tongue. Some of the best can be found in the north, where much of the spice rub used to season suya — a blend of ground peanuts and red pepper — is made and shipped nationwide.
I've eaten succulent beef cubes, lightly seasoned, from the Bauchi Club in Bauchi, the capital of Bauchi state. I ate the best ram meat while spending days in Katsina covering the 2011 election, enjoying it underneath the bright stars of the Sahel. In Lagos, Nigeria's megacity in its southwest, I routinely stop by the Community Club on Ikoyi Island for a few sticks of beef suya, cutting the heat of the dry rub with a beer or two after work.
Suya typically costs around 200 naira ($1.25) a stick and can be made with beef and chicken cuts, as well as bits of kidney, liver and gizzard. An enterprising restaurant on Victoria Island in Lagos called Pizze-Riah offers it as a pizza topping.
At the Super Suya Spot in Surulere, a neighborhood in Lagos, manager Salisu Adamu says people from London and the U.S. buy his suya to take back home. Those eating it locally line up at the window of his store, ordering sticks already made and held inside a glass box, a single light bulb hanging precariously above for people to see what they're buying. Stacks of old newspapers sit nearby to bundle the suya to go.
Inside, a group of men from the north cut through about a cow and a half a day to provide the meat for the store, stripping away the fat to use for candles. They slap the strips of meat into large piles of the burnt orange spice before cutting it into narrow, slender slices. They spear the slices onto sticks to cook above an open charcoal grill, its sides coated in dripped grease long ago gone black.
The food sells itself, Adamu says in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north.
"Whoever has money will come and buy suya," he says.
And as the sign at one of his locations says: "When men eat suya, they find it easy to meet women. Women stand men after suya."
Powdered peanut butter is available in natural foods stores and online. If you have trouble finding it, substitute ground peanuts. To grind them, pulse them in a food processor until they resemble a fine meal. Be careful not to overgrind and produce peanut butter.
Start to finish: 2 hours (30 minutes active)
1/2 cup powdered peanut butter
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground dry ginger
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 pounds sirloin steak
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 large tomato
1/2 small yellow onion
1 medium cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Ground black pepper
Set an oven-safe wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Coat the rack with cooking spray.
In a wide, shallow bowl, mix together the powdered peanut butter, paprika, ginger, 2 teaspoons of salt, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the mixture.
Using a very sharp knife, cut the steak into thin slices no more than 1/4 inch thick. Thread the steak onto wooden skewers.
Using a pastry brush, lightly brushed the sliced steak on both sides with peanut oil. One at a time, place each skewer over the bowl of seasoning mixture and press it onto the meat; it should be thick and almost paste-like. Arrange the coated steak on the prepared rack.
Cover the steak loosely with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 300 F.
After 30 minutes, uncover the steak and roast for 20 minutes. Flip the skewers, then roast for another 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, dice the tomato, onion and cucumber, then combine in a medium bowl. Add the vinegar, toss, then season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Remove the pan from the oven and increase heat to 400 F. Brush the steak on both sides with a bit more oil. When the oven is at temperature, roast for another 5 minutes.
Sprinkle the steak with the reserved 2 tablespoons of seasoning mixture. Serve the steak with the tomato-onion mixture.
Nutrition information per serving: 390 calories; 220 calories from fat (56 percent of total calories); 25 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 110 mg cholesterol; 8 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 35 g protein; 860 mg sodium.
(Recipe by AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch, who tweets at https://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch )