How my hesitation to try out a local dish turned into an unlikely quest to find the best suya in Nigeria.
“Let’s go to Elegushi private beach” our driver Dele suggested. Our group asked him earlier to take us around to see the local neighborhoods and people, in hopes that we wouldn’t end up at tourist attractions. When we arrived at the beach, it didn’t seem very private at all. It was about 1000 naira ($2) to visit the beach, along with the surrounding restaurants and lounges along the coast. We were flagged down to come inside a brightly painted, colorful wooden shack, one of many at the beach. Even though it was empty, the sounds of the latest Afrobeat hits filled the air with a palpable excitement that was contagious. We were happy to be there with a unobstructed view of the beach, drinking beer and watching the locals leisurely enjoying life, while others were hustling everything from cigarettes to horseback rides to $4 weed.
When it came time to relieve ourselves of all the beer drinking, it proved to be a bit of an adventure. After an unsatisfactory use of the “clean toilet” the guys outside sold us on, the women on our trip had to leave with our driver to find a more suitable place with toilet paper available. I didn’t blame them – at that point I was battling constipation and would need a basic setup myself to follow nature’s calling. The guys on our trip stayed behind and ordered a couple rounds of Gulder, a local lager, relaxed and talked about the start of our epic trip in Nigeria together.
“Is it beef or chicken?” I said, admitting that I didn’t know what we ordered, but wanted to delegate myself to one of the safer meat options. “It should be beef,” my friend said, with a bit of trepidation in his voice.
After a few rounds of beer, one of the runners asked us what we were eating. I saw the makeshift kitchen and thought I needed to exercise some caution on my first day here, even with a full course of travel vaccinations. I hesitated at first, but agreed when it was my turn to up-vote a local favorite called suya.
“Is it beef or chicken?” I said, admitting that I didn’t know what we ordered, but wanted to delegate myself to one of the safer meat options. “It should be beef,” my friend said, with a bit of trepidation in his voice. “You never had? It’s good bro, don’t worry about it. You won’t get sick”, assuring me after sensing my hesitation. A few minutes later, the runner appeared with something wrapped in layers of newspaper and a few toothpicks protruding out. We unwrapped the newspaper and a soft smoke of meat and spices filled our noses; we immediately knew we made a good choice.
I was in love with this delicious “street meat”, with the perfect balance of flavor, smoke, heat and a slight nuttiness.
The thin slices of beef were slowly grilled over a low flame and aggressively seasoned with a delicious blend of spices, hot red pepper and peanuts. I was in love with this delicious “street meat”, with the perfect balance of flavor, smoke, heat and a slight nuttiness. I was impressed and excited for what I was going to discover next. I’ve been here less than 36 hours and I was convinced that suya was the best Nigerian dish around.
This would not be my only encounter with my newfound love. I repeatedly ran into stalls outside of markets, clubs, bars and even churches selling the popular street food. I ordered suya wherever I went and quickly realized that I found the gold standard on day one. Don’t get me wrong- the other suya I tried were delicious, spicy and fresh, but there was something about that suya on that beach day with the guys.
The beer, food, music and vibes created the perfect environment for some of my best memories in Nigeria – it was harmony. That day reminded me of our days working as bussers at The Standard. We hung out every chance we could, using our meager tip share for the week to celebrate life, eating and drinking whatever we could afford. That day at the beach helped me understand how Nathan’s hot dogs could be the highlight of a day well-spent with loved ones at Coney Island.
Perhaps harmony was the missing element after trying one stand after another, in search of that perfect bite from the beach. It definitely is when I eat hot dogs in front of Penn Station, wishing I was somewhere else.