This week we had “fast food” for lunch. Chris had a meeting at Hillcrest, the international school here, so he suggested that we meet there for lunch. Unlike most schools in the States, Hillcrest doesn’t have a cafeteria. What it has instead are a couple little thatch roof huts (built by the PTA one year) and some Nigerians who cook and sell food to the students (and us!) during lunch and after school. They also have a canteen that is run by the junior class as a fundraiser, and they sell drinks, candy (some of it even brought in from the States. You can buy a Starburst, for example, for about 10 naira, and this year they even have Tootsie Rolls that you can buy individually as well.), snacks and sometimes lunch items. We occasionally have lunch at Hillcrest, but it’s sort of like McDonald’s: fast, cheap and not really good for you…. And yet so good….
One woman sells fried foods at Hillcrest. She and her helpers – often including her son, who is about 10 – must cut sacks and sacks of potatoes each day for the vast number of chips (fries) they make. They also sell fried plantains (6-8 for 100 naira, about $.66), one of Chris’s favorites, puff puffs (3 for 10 naira, about $.06), one of my favorites (because they’re basically the Nigerian version of slightly sweet fried dough, a bit smaller than a donut hole (well, the ones she makes, anyway), and hey, what’s not to like about that?? (You can tell who has the healthier taste buds in the family.)), and kose [ko-say], one of Judah’s favorites. Kose is basically a fried bean cake – quite yummy! Somewhat amusing to me, though, is that one Nigerian we know says they’re like a healthy snack for kids. I’m not sure what makes anything dunked and fried in large vats of oil healthy, but they are good, anyway. And they’re made with black-eyed peas, so I guess that’s better than frying Twinkies or Mars candy bars. They’re a very popular snack with Nigerians most any time of day but especially in the morning, and are sold in the market, on street corners – just about anywhere…. Often we see women walk around with buckets of kose on their heads selling them, too.
One of our favorite things to get at Hillcrest is suya [soo-ya], as we’re pretty convinced that the “suya man” at Hillcrest makes some of the best suya we’ve had in town. Suya is basically grilled meat on a stick, usually with a spice mix rubbed on them (often using ground groundnuts (peanuts)), sort of the shish kabob of West Africa. Suya is usually made with beef, but word on the street is that you can also get fish or chicken.
When you order your suya, the “grill master” will take the number of skewers that you want (100 naira a stick at Hillcrest, but the suya stand by our old house sold them for 30 or 50 naira, depending on which cut of meat you got) and throw them on the grill, then squirt them with oil from an old Morning Fresh (dishwashing soap) bottle for cooking. This is one of the things I love about Nigeria: Nothing goes to waste. My best friend used to laughingly tease me for washing and reusing my Ziploc bags at home, but here I fit right in!
When your suya is cooked a few minutes later, it’s wrapped in newspaper with some sliced raw onions, ready to eat. Sometimes we’ll add a couple masa [ma-suh] (no, not like in Mexico….) to the order as well (2 for 50 naira, about $.33). Masa is a very popular fermented bread-like, uh, food. It’s usually made from maize or corn flour, though we’ve heard that sometimes millet is used, and mixed with yeast, a little sugar and salt and some kind of special water, then fermented for 10 hours or something. They have a slightly sour taste – kind of reminds me of sourdough a little bit – that always leaves me wondering whether or not I actually like them. My favorite part about them – if there’s a favorite part to be had, anyway, since in general they’re not really a favorite food of mine here – is the slightly crispy edges. I think Judah feels the same way because he’d taste it, then say, “Me no like that,” then try again. They’re a popular breakfast and snack item, and sometimes they’re served with soups, too.
Suya is very popular as well – I think the suya stand that was by our old house was busy all day long, from mid-morning until late at night – and there are stands all over. Interestingly, though it’s typically women that we see selling kose and such, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a woman making suya. Looks like even in Nigeria the men are in charge of the grill. 😉
If you want to try suya, here’s a recipe for it from The Congo Cookbook. I haven’t tried it so I can’t vouch for its validity or yumminess, but the cookbook is really good and quite helpful since it actually has recipes with ingredients that can be found here.
• three teaspoons finely ground roasted peanuts (see below)
• one teaspoon cayenne pepper or red pepper, or red pepper flakes
• one teaspoon paprika
• one teaspoon salt
• one-half teaspoon ground ginger (optional)
• one-half teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
• one-half teaspoon onion powder (optional)
• a pound or two of meat (beef, chicken, etc.), cut into bite-sized pieces
• onion, peeled and cut into chunks (optional)
• Make the ground peanut powder: Remove shells and skins from roasted peanuts, if necessary. Grind the peanuts into a fine powder (briefly pound them in a mortar and pestle; crush them with a rolling pin; or use a food processor). Be careful not to grind them into a paste. If the peanut powder is oily, wrap it in absorbent paper (paper towel) and squeeze for a minute or two. Stir the spices into the powder, mixing well. For really spicy hot suya, use more cayenne pepper; for a milder dish, substitute paprika for some or all of the cayenne pepper. Divide the peanut-spice mix into two parts, putting half in one bowl and half in another. Set one bowl aside.
• Dip and roll the meat in the other bowl of the peanut-spice mix, making sure the meat is completely coated. Allow meat to marinate for thirty minutes or more. (Get the outdoor grill going or pre-heat the oven while you are waiting).
• Place the meat on skewers.
• Broil in a hot oven, or grill over hot coals, until meat is done.
• Serve immediately with the reserved peanut-spice mix, for sprinkling or dipping as desired. (Do not use the mix that came into contact with the raw meat.)
If you want to feel like you’re in Nigeria, serve ‘em up with some sliced raw onions and wrap them in newspaper, then think of us while you’re munching away!