Why It Works
- Freezing the beef before cutting makes it easier to slice thinly.
- If using wooden skewers, soak them for 30 minutes in cold water to guard against them burning up on the grill.
- The spice blend both seasons the meat and takes on a little char and caramelization during cooking.
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.
- For the Yajin Kuli:
- 1/2 cup (spooned) roasted groundnut/peanut powder (40g) (see note)
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger (5g)
- 1 tablespoon sweet paprika (8g)
- 1 tablespoon onion powder (10g)
- 1 tablespoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (9g); if using table salt, use half as much by volume
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder (4g)
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground grains of selim or grains of paradise (optional; see note)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground (African) cubeb pepper (see note)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- For the Suya:
- 1 pound (450g) beef flank or sirloin steak (see note)
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) peanut oil, or neutral-flavored oil, such as canola
- For Serving:
- Thinly sliced red onions, tomatoes, lime halves, crisp lettuce, and coriander leaves
For the Yajin Kuli: In a small mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and whisk to mix thoroughly, about 30 seconds. Set aside.
For the Suya: Wrap beef tightly in plastic wrap and place on a plate or small baking sheet and set in the freezer until the beef is partially frozen and firm to the touch, 15-30 minutes. Using a sharp chef's knife or slicing knife, slice beef against the grain into 2 inch long, 1 inch wide, and 1/8 inch thick strips. (The easiest and most efficient way to do this is to start by portioning the beef into 2 inch-wide by 1 inch-thick pieces, and then slicing those pieces crosswise into 1/8 inch-thick strips.)
Place sliced beef in large mixing bowl and drizzle peanut oil over it. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of yajin kuli over the beef and carefully toss and massage spice rub into beef until it is evenly coated. Cover, place in refrigerator, and allow beef to marinate for at least half an hour and up to 8 hours.
Working with one piece of beef at a time, thread beef onto skewers, piercing each piece through twice to secure it, then bunching meat tightly together like an accordion. Continue threading beef onto skewer, making sure it's bunched tightly together, leaving no parts of the skewer exposed except for a 2-inch handle at the bottom, and the pointy tip at the top. Repeat skewering process with remaining beef.
If Using Skewer-Specific Grill Setup: Set up grill for skewers, making sure to adjust distance between bricks to the length of your skewers. Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly in the channel between the bricks.
Place skewers directly over the hot coals, balancing them on top of the bricks, with the handles overhanging the bricks closest to you, and the tips balancing on the farther wall of bricks. Cook, turning frequently, until beef is lightly charred, and a piece of beef looks cooked through when removed and cut in half, about 8 minutes; if flare-ups occur, move the skewers around as needed to get them away from the flames. Transfer to serving platter and let rest 2-3 minutes. (In Nigeria, the cooked suya is left to rest for a few hours and then reheated over the grills later, which intensifies the flavors.)
If Using Conventional Charcoal or Gas Grill: Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread coals evenly over half of coal grate. Alternatively, set half the burners of a gas grill to high heat. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate.
Place skewers on grate and cook over direct heat, turning once, until charred on both sides and a piece of beef looks cooked through when removed and cut in half, about 8 minutes. Transfer to serving platter and let rest 2-3 minutes. (In Nigeria, the cooked suya is left to rest for a few hours and then reheated over the grills later, which intensifies the flavors.)
Serve with the reserved yajin kuli, the thinly sliced red onions, tomatoes, lime halves, crisp lettuce, and coriander leaves and tender stems alongside.
Charcoal, gas, or electric grill
If you don't have the grains of selim, grains of paradise, or cubeb pepper, they can be replaced by using ground black pepper.
If you can only find raw peanut powder, toast it in a dry pan on medium to low heat for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring constantly and making sure you're stirring to the bottom of the pan, until it goes from beige to brown. Remove from heat and spread on a plate/baking sheet to cool. Once cool, you can pass it through a fine sieve to get rid of any clumps.
If you can't find peanut powder, you can use the same amount of unsweetened peanut butter.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The yajin kuli spice blend can be made far in advance. Stored in an airtight container, it will keep in the refrigerator or freezer for up to six months.
The skewers can be grilled in advance, as well. Well-wrapped, the skewers will keep in the refrigerator for up to 8 hours. Reheat them on a grill before serving.