Why Nigerian Suya Is the Grandfather of American Barbecue

You’ll be making Chef Kwame Onwuachi’s spicy grilled dish all summer long.

suya recipe kwame onwuachi my america cookbook
Photo by Clay Williams

Kwame Onwuachi remembers striding down the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, where the sharp scent of suya caught him by the nostrils. The New York-raised chef, who made a name for himself in the DC restaurant scene with Kith/Kin, thinks back to those modest food stands. Set up with little charcoal grills and manned by someone whose fluid motions imply how long they’ve been at this, suya vendors (mai suya) sell generously spiced street food—steak, chicken, goat.

“With a mountain of shaved meat behind them, seasoned beautifully, they’ll throw the meat on the grill,” Onwuachi explains. “You’ll see the fat start to render from the meat and it’ll start bubbling up and toasting those spices.” The charred meat is chopped, slid off skewers onto a sheet of newspaper, and showered, mightily again, with a heady spice blend known as yaji (cayenne, grains of paradise, sweet paprika, onion and garlic powders). For contrast, onions and tomatoes are served on the side.

“You just pick that up and you sit on the side of the street and you’re transported somewhere for a little bit,” says Onwuachi, who’ll debut his first cookbook My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef this month. In it you, too, can be transported by recipes like Nigerian suya, or braised Trinidadian greens, or Creole hashbrowns.

Onwuachi’s sophomore follow-up to his award-winning memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, is his, as the title implies, America through his eyes and taste buds.

Photo of inside of the My America cookbook by Kwame Onwuachi showing his portrait
Kwame Onwuachi

“The cookbook is really about the story of the people that made me who I am,” Onwuachi says. “I chose to call it My America because everyone has their different version of food they ate growing up and this is what America looks like to me—curry goat and oxtails and jerk chicken and egusi soup.”

This may be Onwuachi’s first cookbook, but he doesn’t hold back on the storytelling. “It highlights all the different cultures and even the recipes have anecdotes before them that let you know why these dishes are important and why they stood the test of time,” he says.

In the suya recipe, he recalls meeting some raised eyebrows at Kith/Kin when he applied suya to vegetables like Brussels sprouts rather than the traditional meats. “The resistance that was met, I think it’s kind of like a playful resistance: ‘This isn't as good as my mom’s, but this is good,’ or ‘This isn’t suya at all!’” Onwuachi says, countering, “Well, is it delicious or not?”

The book is, after all, Onwuachi’s America, not your mom’s. But you might find pockets of your America reflected somewhere in its pages that prove food here is a product of so many cultures, both voluntarily arrived and unjustly taken.

“The cookbook is really about the story of the people that made me who I am.”

“That’s why I thought it was important to highlight these dishes because you can’t really talk about American food without talking about West African cuisine,” Onwuachi says. “So much of that was brought over here, whether it was people—taken—or whether it was ingredients like rice, watermelon, and okra.”

From this history, Onwuachi parses how to balance what is authentic and what is traditional. “There is liberty, but there is some integrity that needs to be honored when you are cooking traditional foods,” he says. “Food is art and the only art form that we ingest.”

Nigerian Suya 

Yield: Serves 6-8

• 1 pound large (16-20 size) shrimp, peeled and deveined
• 1 pound boneless ribeye steak, excess fat trimmed, sliced into ¼- inch strips
• 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced into ¼- inch strips
• 4½ tablespoons Suya Spice, a.k.a. yaji, divided, plus more to garnish
Note: Kwame makes this from scratch, but you can find it at most grocery stores or online. Kwame’s recipe is included in the cookbook.
• 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
• ¼ cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
• Tomato-ginger soubise, to serve alongside (see below)
• Pickled tomatoes and onions, to serve alongside (see below)
• Lime wedges, to serve

1. If you don’t have a grill, use a well-oiled cast-iron skillet over high heat in a kitchen with open windows (Onwuachi notes that you do not want to hover over the pan or inhale all of those sneeze-inducing spice fumes).
2. Place the shrimp, steak, and chicken in three separate bowls. Season each with 1 1/2 tablespoons of suya spice and ½ teaspoon salt, mixing well to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (You can marinate the shrimp for up to 12 hours, and the steak and chicken for up to 48 hours.)

Tomato-ginger soubise:

• 1 Roma tomato, roughly chopped
• 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
• Kosher salt, to taste
• 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
• 3 tablespoons Ginger-Garlic Purée (GGP)
Note: Kwame makes GGP from scratch, but you can find it at most grocery stores or online. Kwame’s recipe is included in the cookbook.
• 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 1 cup whole milk

1. Heat the oven to 400°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Toss the tomatoes with olive oil and season with salt. Spread evenly over the sheet pan and bake for 15 minutes, until deep red and a little wrinkly.
2. Meanwhile, heat the grapeseed oil in a medium pot over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the GGP and cook until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Add the onions and cook until translucent and soft, 7-10 minutes. Add the roasted tomatoes, along with the cream and milk. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until reduced to about 1 cup—watch carefully, as cream has a tendency to boil over, so reduce the heat as necessary to keep it from sputtering or burning— about 1 hour.
3. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, then transfer to a blender and purée until velvety smooth. Season to taste with salt and set aside. You should have 1 cup of soubise.

For the pickled tomatoes and onions:

• 1 cup Spice Pickling Liquid (below)
• 1 medium red onion, large dice
• 1 medium ripe tomato, large dice

Bring the spice pickling liquid to a boil in a small pot. Place the onions and tomatoes in a nonreactive bowl and pour the hot liquid over them, stirring to combine well. Let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour before serving. You should have about 3 cups of pickled tomatoes and onions.

To assemble:
1. When ready to cook, prepare a grill or cast-iron pan for high heat. Let it heat for 10 minutes. Grill the shrimp, steak, and chicken, turning occasionally, until deeply browned and cooked through, about 3 minutes for shrimp and steak and 4 to 5 minutes for the chicken.
2. In a small pot, warm the soubise over low heat. Place the grilled items on a platter, dust with extra suya spice, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve with warm soubise, pickled tomatoes and onions, lime wedges for squeezing, and jollof rice.
3. Note: Cooked suya shrimp will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 day, chicken and beef suya for up to 4 days. Tomato-ginger soubise will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Pickled tomatoes and onions will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Spice Pickling Liquid

• 1¾ cups white wine vinegar
• ¼ cup granulated white sugar
• 3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 12 fresh thyme sprigs
• 4 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
• ½ habanero pepper, stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
• 2 thin slices ginger, about 2-3 inches long
• 2 cups water

Place all the ingredients into a medium pot and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as it comes to a boil, remove it from the heat. Let cool completely, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve and transfer to a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Note: Spice pickling liquid will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.

From My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein. Copyright © 2022 by Kwame Onwuachi. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Rosin Saez is the senior editor of Food & Drink at Thrillist.