Of the five Nigerian dishes I discussed with chef Kwame Onwuachi a few months ago, none has woven its way into my regular cooking routine as much as his recipe for suya, the grilled skewers of beef marinated in a piquant spice mix that are a staple of many street food vendors in that country and other parts of West Africa.
I haven't increased my beef intake, though. (Far from it, in fact.) And I'm not constantly grilling the cubes of chicken or spiced shrimp Onwuachi offers as alternatives in his recipe, either. I don't even own a grill! What I mean when I say that Onwuachi's suya recipe has improved my cooking is that I am using that delicious spice mix constantly.
Suya spice, also called yaji, is a fiery blend of ground chiles, ginger, garlic and onion powders. It also usually contains fermented locust beans or bouillon cubes, and has one other ingredient that really sets it apart: ground peanuts. Traditionally the peanuts are ground into butter and then put through a process to extract excess oil, after which the nut paste is fried or roasted into a brittle mass known as kuli kuli. The kuli kuli is then ground again and mixed with the spices mentioned above for an earthy, nutty, deeply savory and vibrant mix of flavors.
Mixed suya skewers: you can't have just one. Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Pearl Jones
Onwuachi's recipe doesn't include this drying step, but if you want to make a batch of yaji to keep around the house for other uses, you may want to go through the process—or, take the smart shortcut some cooks in the African diaspora have deployed by replacing the ground nuts with peanut powder, a product found in health food stores that is essentially peanut flour (or ground peanuts with most of the oil extracted). You can also buy suya spice mixed and ready to go from Etsy and Amazon, but note that, like many spice blends, ingredients can vary from brand to brand.
Using yaji on the grill will improve your summer. It works well with beef, chicken, lamb, goat, and shrimp. But just because it was made for the grill, doesn't mean it has to stay there. Onwuachi says he likes to "dust brussels sprouts with suya spice" then roast and "drizzle them with honey." He tosses freshly popped popcorn with the hot and savory spice and has been known to add a few spoonfuls to a meaty braise.