Suuyar, 150C Rye Ln, Choumert Rd, London SE15 4RZ
If you’re unfortunate enough to even remotely enter my orbit, as certain as death and taxes, two topics will be foisted upon you. 1) The 1998 hit “What’s It Gonna Be?!” by Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson is one of the finest basslines ever written by Darrell "Delite" Allamby, especially considering that bass isn’t even his first instrument and 2) I’m consumed with the concept of suya in a way that makes you wonder what’s wrong with me.
I know what you’re thinking. The world needs another middle-class white man to rave about another culture's food. Well, hold on to your Rick Steins, because I hath arrived.
Suya is defined by its yaji seasoning, typically made with a base of kuli kuli — a West African snack made of crushed peanuts — along with uda pods that resemble vanilla pods with biceps. Blended with a range of spices (fresh, powdered or both) such as chilli, ginger, onion, garlic and ideally Maggi chicken stock cubes, it’s almost a dry rub/marinade hybrid. Applied to thin slices of beef, both prior to and throughout the cooking process, the yaji cakes to the meat as it takes on the fat and juices, before finishing the dish once the meat has rested. Of course, as with so many homemade and handed-down recipes, ingredients and their quantities often differ from person to person which I love — it's something personal and speaks to the affection with which it's regarded. Often described as a ‘gateway’ to West African food, it seems fitting that some suya spots sling you a little baggie of extra yaji.
My obsession with suya has me rapturously praising it like a street preacher, with maddened eyes and wild gesticulations because in one fell swoop, it possesses attributes that I’d otherwise source in parts. Having earned the nickname ‘Peanut Butter Wils’ from my kilo-a-week habit years ago, it's the omnipresent flavour of caramelised peanut that activates in my spinal fluid and takes me to another realm. Then the smoke — that gnarling char with which only open flame can bless a protein, provides an optimum backdrop to showcase the interplay of every ingredient. Yaji, to my simple bulbous mind, is not unlike a satay sauce dehydrated and therefore so much more pronounced. Chunks of raw onion and tomato complete the dish, providing acidic blasts of crunch via your nasal passages along with sweet, quenching bursts to temper the gathering heat.
To date, of the eight or so spots I’ve tried, Suuyar on Choumert Road in Peckham is the best suya I’ve found so far. Only opening when the weather is good and if he fancies it, the owner Kola has carved out a reputation of a man operating exclusively on his own terms. Waiting in line for what would turn out to be the most worthwhile hour of my life, I get talking to those around me; the lady in front explains that despite living in Reading, she stops here every time she’s in the city, if not making the trip specifically.
The queue lurches ever closer to Kola’s tent — each of us a round in a very long, steadily fed magazine. My comrades can’t wait to get in ‘the zone’ which is around two or three people from the front, where Kola will start handing out pieces of beef suya as both an appeasement and ‘thank you’. I find the man fascinating: this stoic face that makes Easter Island look like a party completely consumed with the focus of his craft, dutifully checking each piece for yaji coverage and pulling those that need more, before smothering them to his standards and slapping them back on the barbecue. Once cooked, he transfers them to another tray where he paints the top pieces with oil to maintain moisture, as the ones below do so by sharing their steam. Kola’s yaji is unlike others, resembling huge caches of Mars surface samples that he's not shy about grabbing by the fistful.
Everything, including his stall and the floors around it, is caked in this terracotta blast radius of yaji. Handing a piece to me his eyes suddenly widen. ‘Allergies?!’ he hesitates, snatching his own hand back. ‘Absolutely not’ I sort of shout, taking the morsel. It’s glorious. Crisp with bitter char in parts, imbued with smoke but ultimately tender and streaming with juices, fleeced in yaji that just melts away. It’s the free sample a dealer might give out to a first-timer and it worked — because I’m hooked.
People in front are buying boxes upon boxes but even with this wall of orders, Kola is unflappable; directing his apprentice who's doing their level-best to keep up with him, fuelled by intermittent stacks of Pringles and sips of Coke. The beef is seared, dusted in yaji then slow-cooked in a small toaster oven-looking gadget, before being placed in the closed oil drum barbecue to imbibe the smoke. From there, it’s finished on the open barbecue with a final adjustment of yaji if needed, all the while disciplining the flames with slugs of water. The queue is singing Kola's praises about how he never rushes nor shorts people, always counting the queue versus his stock to ensure a consistent experience. The people turn up for him. This is a project driven by fanatical and uncompromising passion — the business dynamic seems almost incidental. It’s even wilder once you know that Kola is an ex-soldier with a Master's and a previous career in social care; although you could definitely consider his suya a continuation of this. Kola is suya’s answer to Darrell "Delite" Allamby.
Due to the long but merited wait, I’m actually now late for dinner somewhere else. Securing the fogged-up Tupperware with red onion and tomato pressed up against it in full clarity like a perversion of that Titanic scene, I get a move on. But for the first time in my life, I do not remember the meal. Like a bombing first date, I paid zero attention — my eyes constantly wandering back to the sultry, steaming box winking at me. As soon as we’re finished eating whatever it was, we find the nearest wall to sit on and bust the sucker open. It’s still warm, the yaji damply caked and fixed like moss, the spice is a depth charge so satisfying that you can't help chasing one piece with the next.
Walking back to the bus stop, Kola is still there with a couple of people in line. Being the insufferable person I am, I make a beeline over to him before gushing about how I’d been looking forward to trying his suya for ages. As I begin to babble about how I make my own at home, the woman to my left looks me up and down trying to stifle her laughter, which turns into a raspberry, before letting loose and howling at the idea altogether. But it is funny — at a glance, I look like the leader of an EDL chapter, so don’t begrudge anyone in assuming that I prefer sitting in my manky bedsit with itchy trousers, eating chips and wrapped up in a St. George’s flag hat's translucent with grease and muttering about winning a war in which I played no part whatsoever.
If you’re in Peckham when the sun’s out and you’re done pretending to enjoy a £50 rosé next to some open bins, swing by and get in that queue. I’ll understand if you avoid me, though.