One of West Africa’s great barbecue traditions combines grilled meat with yaji. It’s exquisite. Here’s where to find it.
The three great barbecue traditions of the world can be traced to West Africa: Southern U.S. barbecue, Jamaican jerk, and suya. While the first two have emerged from the culinary traditions of enslaved peoples in the Americas, suya is a style of barbecue that remains predominant among the Hausa people spread across Nigeria and Ghana. It is the quickest and most immediate of the three and unlike Southern barbecue and jerk, which use large and medium cuts, respectively, it focuses on smaller thinner cuts of meat or offal, sliced or skewered, then doused right at the end in yaji, an aromatic mix that can contain, among many other things, peppercorns, ginger, clove, pepper, chilli, and peanuts. These mixes are a closely guarded secret: Ask a suya vendor if they make their own and they will smile and say “of course” but never reveal what is actually in it. Yaji is why suya needs to be eaten quickly, straight from the carton or paper, while the aromatics are volatile and provoke a strong reaction from every open duct in the head.
Suya spots do have a presence in London, although their existence is peripatetic and many of the great ones close down too soon; in the wider discourse about food in London, they exist, unjustifiably, under the radar. This is a shame, not just because suya is so often a source of Nigerian and Ghanaian homesickness (it is not unheard of for the diaspora to smuggle yaji from Lagos or Abuja to London while badmouthing the state of most London suya) but because these are now important parts of London culture and the city’s canon of great food. Here are some of the best, but be warned: Once hooked on god-tier suya there is no going back, for the trifecta of hot meat, yaji, and raw white onion is simply one of the great accords of world cuisine.
1. Alhaji SUYA
London SE15 6TR, UK
When Abdullahi Maikano opened Alhaji Suya just over a year ago it was a huge deal for the London Hausa community who finally had one of their own owning and operating a restaurant dedicated to a Hausa speciality. In that time Maikano has become the indisputable king of suya in London: Beef, lamb, and chicken are the standard options here, cooked on the long barbecue at 45 degrees and rested, then finished on an electric grill to develop a crust. There are also, occasionally, gizzards and kidneys, but it’s the fatty cut of tozo (beef), veal like in its colour and texture, that melts on the tongue, while the homemade yaji provokes a nasal rush that is almost ecstatic. Always ask for kilishi if he has it, a type of jerky made from dried, flattened muscle, the bright purple colour of a bruise, that packs a sweet heat that builds and builds and builds. Not just a great suya spot but one of the best takeaways of any kind in London.
2. Daddy O Suya Spot
London SE1 6TB, UK
Oliajide Agbede’s stall in the moat of Elephant and Castle is dedicated to broader Nigerian cuisine — fufu and eba, leafy nutty egusi soup, and fiery beef stews — but it’s his suya that brings people in. Seasoned and charred, the chicken suya is then reheated, chopped on the bone, and sprinkled with yaji, aromatic with ginger, freshly ground chiles and possibly cumin that is redolent of the spice mix used for Chinese skewers. Gizzard suya is made fresh and doused in an oily marinade containing onions and peppers. A double portion is £2 and can be mopped up with a Nigerian bun for 50p — a delicious dough dumpling with a crunchy outer crust of sugar, that offers a plain, sweet ballast to the gizzard’s fire and funk: simply, one of the best things possible to buy with £2.50 in London.
3. Korede’s Africoal (Suya Spot)
Erith DA8 1JJ, UK
All the way out in Erith — a small town located by the Thames Estuary that is only not in Kent on a technicality and by virtue of being reachable by a red London bus; it is home to one of the biggest Nigerian communities in the U.K. The restaurant scene here is still small — at K’s African Spice near the station Efik and Yoruba specialities reign, but further down, at Korede’s Africoal lies one of London’s most unlikely suya spots. The pair who run it will walk through the options for those unfamiliar (and will tone the spice down on request — this is almost Kent, remember) but the best of the meat options is the perfectly grilled rack of lamb ribs where the creamy lamb fat deliriously mixes with homemade yaji.
4. Angel’s Bakery
London SE15 4TL, UK
Those living in Peckham may have seen more activity than normal at Angels Bakery late at night while carousing down Rye Lane. One reason for this is that Obalende Suya, previously the place to go in Peckham for suya and maybe the only suya spot in the world with a Wikipedia page, has closed; the second is that more people now know Angels do suya in addition to its staples of Afro-Caribbean breads. The options here are beef, chicken and turkey. The best is beef cut into small pieces, some morsels fat and crisp, some charred and crunchy, easily dispatched so the yaji gives a short, sharp, addictive rush. As well as suya, the meat patties are exceptional, with buttery soft pastry, flat as a plane on one side so it is almost crisp, with moist, well seasoned meat, carrots and potatoes — it would be difficult to find a better Cornish pasty in the city.
London SE15 4RZ, UK
Kolawole Ajayi — aka Nigeriacuisine — is a YouTuber with nearly 75,000 subscribers who tune in for his charismatic and opinionated takes on everything from the best okro-ogbono to pepper soup. He also has a street food stall on Choumert Road in Peckham where he slings out excellent suya on a small grill, portion by portion. The beef suya — the most popular option — is pre-cooked at home and finished on the grill with two yajis, one cinnabar and hot, made predominantly from kuli kuli (roasted peanut cake) sprinkled generously from trays resembling red sand dunes, a blend made by Ajayi himself. The other, used sparingly, is lighter, complex and gingery, that he sources from one of his favourite spots in Lagos. Less hot than many other suya spots, and more adjustable (Ajayi will always offer a taster to check the heat level) this is a great, relatively central place to start for suya newcomers. The asun, however, chock full with the heat of c. 1 million scotch bonnets, takes absolutely no prisoners.
London SW1Y 4AH, UK
In the early stages of Ikoyi when Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale were working out how to collaborate, Chan went on a trip to Nigeria to understand the food. In short: he didn’t like it that much. However the kernel of Ikoyi was born, the idea that a restaurant could use techniques and ingredients from West Africa, decontextualise them and repurpose them in unexpected ways. The use of a complex spice powder applied at the end of the dish for seasoning and aromatics is not unique to Nigerian food; indeed there are obvious Chinese, as well as French avant-garde, connections detectable in Ikoyi’s most iconoclastic dish — the plantain with raspberry salt. More explicitly, Chan pushes the idea of suya in a new direction — the mushroom suya infused with pine must first be dipped in an emulsion and then the yaji, while a beautiful thick cut of grass-fed beef inauthentically medium rare comes not coated with yaji but on the side, so the customer applies it to taste. Is this West African food? No, but it definitely is top grade suya.
7. Accra Palace Ghanaian Restaurant
London E5 9JZ, UK
Of course suya is not just a Nigerian food. The Hausa influence stretches across the north of Ghana and Cameroon, as well as Niger, Chad and Sudan. Most Ghanaian restaurants in London will do some form of suya, and Accra Palace in Clapton is no better or worse than any of them, but it has the virtue of being able to produce skewers quickly, with diners in and out for £2.50 in the time it takes one to heat up. This is not in the top tier of suya — for that, for it to be fresh, a 20 minute wait is standard — but the cubes of lamb are well seasoned with a yaji that caresses and numbs the upper lip rather than bullies. For north of the river (while &suya is on hiatus) this is about as good as it gets although Onidodo in Turnpike Lane is said to do chicken suya waffles, which is huge behaviour.
8. Presidential Suya Nigerian Restaurant
London SE1 5TY, UK
A decent half way house on the Old Kent Road that compromises between quality of/time taken waiting for suya. At the takeaway section next to the restaurant, generous portions of beef, lamb, chicken; or gizzard, kidney, shaki (tripe) are ready made then heated up again and seasoned for taste. The spiciest level here is not actually that spicy, but pushes all the buttons, and best of all comes in layers and layers of fish and chip like wrapping that means it can be eaten with greasy fingers all the way down to Burgess Park.
9. Mai Suya [DELIVERY ONLY]
Croydon CR0, UK
The idea of a mail delivery service as a cure-all for homesickness it not a new one — after all, many of London’s pie and mash shops do delivery for those who have taken the long and irreversible journey from east London to Essex. And some London Nigerians have wondered, if rich residents of Lagos can order in pizza from London then why not suya going the other way? Kehinde Tayo-Quaye’s Mai Suya aims to fill this gap in the market, offering postal orders of suya, peppered gizzards, and asun from as well as pick-ups for those who can make the trip to the HQ. While something will always be lost in the reheating, the beef suya holds up well and the kidney suya offers something the competition doesn’t, a kidney so devilled it’s in the ninth circle of hell, where the fire of yaji plays off against the offal funk. To accentuate the nostalgia factor, all suya comes wrapped in newspaper with paper-wrapped pellets of yaji for those who want even more heat. Except, because this is London after all, the paper is the Evening Standard.
10. Suya Spot
London SE15 4QN, UK
One of the slickest non-permanent suya spots in the city, who can often be found either at Peckham Springs or at Mama Leah’s on the Old Kent Road. Suya Spot’s pop-ups are more like communal events where suya becomes a way of bringing people together to ‘capture a sense of family’. The beef and chicken suya are reputedly excellent, as well as the wings and vegetarian options which are not found so often in suya spots, while orders are supplemented with pots of bright orange jollof and plantain pie for dessert. For those planning a visit, the next Suya Spot event is on August 18th at Peckham Springs.