All You Need to Know About Suya (Skewered Beef)


Suya is life. It is culture and one of the unifying factors of every Nigerian. Suya might have originated from Northern Nigerian but it owned by all Nigerians and cherished by all.

Suya is very tasty and much savoured by Nigerians from all walks of life. A trip to any of the big hotels in the nation’s cities and particularly to the local and international wings of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, attests to this.

But is there all there is to Suya?

What is Suya?

Suya is a spicy meat skewer which is a popular food item in West Africa. It is traditionally prepared by the Hausa people of northern Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, and some parts of Sudan. Suya is generally made with skewered beef, ram, or chicken. Innards such as kidney, liver and tripe are also used. The thinly sliced meat is marinated in various spices which include peanut cake, salt, vegetable oil and other flavourings, and then barbecued with a checkered metal net. Suya is served with extra helpings of dried pepper mixed with spices sliced onions and cabbages.

There is no standard recipe for the production of the complex mixture of spices and additives which make up the Suya marinade (called Yaji) and the spice mix served with it. Ingredients may vary according to personal and regional preferences. This is one of the reasons Suyas have differing tastes.

Although Suya originated in the Northern parts of Nigeria, it has permeated the Nigerian society, being affordable for all and available everywhere. It has been called a unifying factor in Nigeria. Suya has become a Nigerian national dish with different regions claiming the superiority of their recipe and methods of preparation, but similar grilled meat recipes are common in many West African countries.

What is Kilishi?

Kilishi is a version of jerky (lean trimmed meat that has been cut into strips and dried to prevent spoilage) that originated in Hausaland. It is a dried form of Suya, made from deboned cow, sheep or goat meat. Each of the selected muscles is sliced into sheets of one metre or less for easy drying.

The Difference Between Suya and Kilishi

The major difference between Suya and Kilishi is in their freshness. While Suya is from fresh meats, Kilishi’s is deliberately dried meats.

Is Suya Healthy?

Yes, Suyas are good sources of protein but research has shown a strong link between consumption of suya and increased risk of cancer. And then, there is the question of hygiene and since your favourite Suya seller only shows up at the bus stop at night, how he prepares his and where he sources his meats are not exactly known. There have been cases of Suya sellers allegedly involved in using human meats as Suya.

Prof. Ignatius Onimawo, a nutritionist at the University of Benin claimed that consumption of suya garnished with onions and other vegetables has a strong cancer-lowering effect.

Suya and Cancer

“The suya meat already contains enough fat, now the oil sprinkled on it is also from fat, that is why it kept by the fire to keep it in liquid form. It is highly saturated, and drips into the fire sending up smoke that contains carcinogens.”, according to Onimawo.

Narrowing down the conversation to suya preparation, he remarked: “During the preparation of Suya, the meat is cooked over an open fire, and oils from the meat undergo complex chemical reactions that produce toxins that are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in nature. Meat cooked over open flame often causes the formation of toxic compounds known as Heterocyclic Amines, HCAs, which are carcinogenic. The more well-done meat is cooked, the higher concentration of carcinogenic HCAs can form.”

Explaining that cancer is due to oxidative processes in the body, he said onions are powerful antioxidants that effectively stop the oxidative process triggered by consumption of suya from taking place.

Further, Onimawo said one of the outcomes of the findings was that women, who consume suya, are more prone to cancer (breast cancer) than men because they (women) tend to consume just the suya and ignore the vegetables.

“Men eat onions, women eat suya: “This is practically proven. Many young men, take girls out and buy suya to entertain them. Normally, apart from the spices sprinkled on the meat, the suya is served with slices of onions, cabbage and tomatoes in some cases.

“The onion and other vegetables are actually added to act as an antidote to the effect of the oil from the suya. Onions neutralise the oxidative effect of the chemicals in the oil and help prevent cancer, but because the young man wants to impress the girl, he will be eating the onions, while the girl eats the suya. At the end of the day, he is preventing cancer, unknowingly, while the girl is eating cancer.”

A number of studies support the use of local spices such as ginger, clove, red pepper, black pepper, onion, thyme, oregano and garlic in a meat marinade before grilling also drastically reduce any carcinogens that normally would form on grilled meat.

The suya sauce, a.k.a. Yaji, comprising most of these spices are believed to help ameliorate possible negative effects of the roasted red meat.  However, findings link excessive consumption to possible kidney damage. The antioxidants in rosemary and thyme from a marinade were specifically cited in studies at being powerful inhibitors of HCA formation when grilling meats.

Essentially, when meat is grilled, broiled, or seared, carcinogenic HCAs are formed. However, when meat is cooked in a water base the dangerous HCAs are eliminated. So meats cooked in a soup or crock pot will not have the problem of the carcinogenic HCAs and is a healthier way to cook meat.

Remember that the more well-done a meat is cooked, the higher concentration of carcinogenic HCA’s can form, so rare, medium-rare, or medium are healthier choices than well-done.  If you like your roast or barbecued meat well-done, remember that you may be eating a lot more carcinogens than meat that not as well cooked. So make sure to load up on using spices to drastically reduce the formation of HCAs on grilled meat!

So when next you buy your Suya, be sure to eat the onions and vegetable that comes with it!

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