Why Nigerian Suya Is the Grandfather of American Barbecue

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Why Nigerian Suya Is the Grandfather of American Barbecue

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

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.

“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.”

Culled from Thrillist

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