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Vittles 2.20 - Yaji
A yaji by any other name (would be incorrect), by Jokè Bakare
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The first time I tasted yaji, and by extension, suya, I was angry. Angry that it had taken me so long to try, that I had been denied such a form of culinary pleasure simply because the British food media had not deemed it important enough to write about. You can argue for the importance of covering Nigerian cuisine in the UK in about 1000 different ways, 999 of which I’ve tried, but one which doesn’t come up so often is the pleasure argument. People who are interested in food are often hedonists by nature, so why would you refuse yourself a new form of pleasure or a new way of thinking about pleasure that you have yet to experience? “Too esoteric, too obscure” I think the newspaper food editors would say. Better review another fresh pasta restaurant in Soho.
The best suya I’ve ever tasted, and by extension the best yaji, was at Alhaji Suya just off Old Kent Road, before it burnt down and moved to its temporary home in Greenwich. The quality of yaji is crucial to suya: the Nigerian chef Shola Olunloyo says “Suya is all about the spice (yaji). It involves a process that's unique to Nigeria; nobody else does it in the world. Most of the engineering and the work is in the production of the spice.”. The uniqueness of suya is in how the yaji physically affects you compared to other examples of heat. It is very different to, say, the long burn on the tongue you might experience from jerk chicken. In a small profile for Eater London I described the suya at Alhaji, saying “providing it is eaten straight off the grill while the homemade yaji is still aromatic and volatile, (it provokes) a nasal rush that is almost ecstatic”. The heat from a good yaji is short and sharp, like a blitz on your nasal passages. There is heat on the tongue, but also a retronasal action that starts in the centre of your face and blooms outward, allowing you to taste the aromatic complexity behind the chilli heat. A good yaji, quite simply, should be a bit trippy.
I remember on maybe the third or fourth time I went to Alhaji, my partner asked the owner Abdullahi what was in his yaji. He looked at her dead in the eye, and said words to the effect of the only way she was ever going to find out was if she married into his family. This is the other great part of great suya: the experience of being in a suya spot. The seasoning of banter is just as crucial as yaji, and if you’re going to go toe to toe with a Hausa Nigerian you’re going to have to bring your A-game. Although I had to steel myself for the onslaught at first, eventually I leaned to it and even started writing down fragments of conversation between customers or staff that I thought were funny:
“Be careful, this is very temperature hot”
“So should I wait a bit?”
“No. Eat it like that”
“So why did you tell me?”
*to his assistant* “If you keep being so generous you’re going to put me out of business”
*indignantly* “This isn’t suya, this is onions. Abdullahi these are VEGETABLES”
You could have made a TV show at Alhaji, so replete it was with interesting characters. Abdullahi himself, his white assistant dressed in full Hausa gear who Abdullahi insisted - without evidence - was Irish, the couple who came in dressed to the nines in Western suits who had clearly been at a swanky party, and fell on the suya without shame in their car because they couldn’t wait to bring it home.
Today’s newsletter by chef and writer Jokè Bakare is on yaji and on memories of the suya spot. One thing you may learn from the get go is that there are major differences in cuisine within Nigeria, with neverending arguments over words and authenticity ─ as you may well expect in a country with over 500 native languages. Suya, however, remains a universal dialect.
Five great places to try suya in South London:
Alhaji Suya, Unit 15 Angerstein Business Park, 12 Horn Ln, London SE10 0RT
Muazus Suya, Unit 10, The Aylesham Centre, Rye Ln, Peckham, London SE15 5EW
Tiwa n Tiwa, 34A Peckham High St, Peckham, London SE15 5DP
Suuyar, 150C Rye Ln, Choumert Rd, Peckham, London SE15 4RZ
Korede’s Africoal, 85 Brook St, Erith DA8 1JJ
A yaji by any other name (would be incorrect), by Jokè Bakare
Shakespeare said that “A rose by any other name will smell just as sweet” but I am of the school of thought that says, “find your name and your buried treasure”. Words always matter, which is why I am uncomfortable when I see references to suya pepper in relation to yaji. So let me be clear: suya is meat whilst yaji is the spice!
Perhaps this distinction needs an explanation of the complexities of Nigeria itself. My family settled in the northern part of Nigeria when I started primary school, and at heart I have always considered myself a northern Nigerian. The north of Nigeria is largely inhabited by the Hausa and the Fulani people, whilst the south is majority Yoruba and Igbo – which is where most British Nigerians are from. The country is multi-ethnic with a diverse food culture, although the cuisine of the north is not as well known internationally as the food of the south of the country. That is the main reason why I am advocating for it to be recognised by its proper name.
The Hausa are one of the largest ethnic groups across northern Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Ghana. They are scattered across West Africa, and for centuries have mainly been traders and pastoralists along the Trans-Saharan trade route, mainly trading in gold, glass and spices. Suya is maybe the great Hausa contribution to cuisine: a perfected style of grilling meat over charcoal, where the meat is marinated in the dry rub, grilled and then served with a simple salad of onions and tomatoes and a sprinkle of yaji spice.
It is this connection with suya that has caused yaji to be only known as suya pepper outside the region where it is used, not just for grilled meat but also in soups, as a dressing for couscous, as a condiment, as a dip for rice pancakes or as something to sprinkle on salads. Its uses are numerous and therein lies the treasure.
Every yaji is different but the basic mix consists of ginger, garlic, Grains of Selim, false cubeb pepper, onion flakes, dried chilli, paprika and salt, and in most cases bouillon powder. It is then ground together and stored in airtight jars. This is the base recipe for yaji, which all the other types use as a template for additional spices. Individual households and suya masters have their own signature blends that are closely guarded secrets. A really good yaji spice mix is a fine balance of bitter, musky and citrussy. Because some of the peppers are floral, especially Grains of Paradise, you want to establish a fine balance so that no one overpowers the other and all work together in harmony.
The most common variation is to mix it with ground kuli kuli, which is a sweet brittle made from defatted peanuts. Cheaper commercial blends mix in more of the kuli kuli to stretch the yaji out so you get more of a nut taste with an undertone of spice instead of a full-on spice explosion. This is called Yajin-Kuli.
The spices mix with fried ginger, onion and garlic, along with some dawadawa – the dried fermented seeds of African locust beans, which is similar to the iru of the Yoruba – is used as a condiment and is also known to provide a burst of umami, lending dishes deeply savoury and spicy depth. This is Yajin-Daddawa or Yajin-Miya. Where in the West you would usually find salt and pepper, in parts of Nigeria instead it will be yaji and maishanu, a type of butter than can either be like ghee or, in some areas, where there is a stronger connection to the Fulani, it is a Moroccan smen-like fermented butter
My initial encounter with yaji in sauces was my auntie’s kuka (baobab leaf) soup. She was the daughter of a cocoa trader and grew up in Ghana, so not only does she speak Hausa and Yoruba fluently but Ga and Twi as well. Her cooking was a fusion of north and south Ghanaian and Nigerian cuisine. Her very non-traditional baobab leaf soup uses a combination of fermented locust beans, ginger, garlic and palm nut cream as the base, and even though it had the richness of palm nut cream she still finished it off with a light drizzle of maishanu. The aroma was always so heady and the taste was like nothing I had ever had before – a combination of spice, chilli heat and a deep savouriness. I will always associate her with duck kuka and fried guinea hens. I have never been able to recreate her kuka but I have not given up trying.
Growing up, Friday night in my house was treat night, and it was always either beef suya or squab suya (inshallah). It would come with a small pack of yaji, which was slightly different to the soup style but still tasted great. This was also the first time I had encountered the other type of yaji, meant only for men.
My uncle, on holiday from boarding school at the time, asked me to go buy suya from the local spot. He said to ask for the special mix for men. This sounded intriguing, as up until then I had never heard of such a thing. I asked what made it different from the version we always had but I was abruptly told not to ask questions. Thinking back, there probably must have stories shared in the dorm rooms about the fabled aphrodisiac yaji, said to confer on men enhanced bedroom prowess (insert intense eye roll here). This is usually only available to men or to married women buying for their men, so he wanted to try it himself.
I had never gone to buy suya myself so I was doubly excited that I was finally grown up enough for this responsibility. A proper suya spot hits all your senses. Smoke from meat fat rendered on coals, the smell of grilled meat… the overwhelming heat touches the core of most people in a fundamental way. I was no exception. I loved the banter, the slightly risqué jokes between customer and the grill man.
When I asked for the yaji for men and told the suya master that my uncle had sent me, he laughed and asked how many wives my uncle had so he could customise the portion. Today I know that there is a centuries-old tradition of using scented oils and spices to enhance or prepare for bedroom relations, but back then I didn’t know what to say. Because polygamy is still practised in the north, men with multiple wives claim to need fortification (another eye roll) so they don’t disappoint, and there are tiered yajis depending on how many wives you have. As far as I can tell the only difference between this and the base yaji is the addition of the yohimbe tree bark and more false cubeb pepper. Still, many men swear by its efficacy and actively seek it out.
But there I was thinking “he cannot even talk to girls!” and I was quite sure that not only did he not have a wife but he didn’t even have a girlfriend. I quickly told the suya man he had four wives; he gave me a strange look whilst preparing my order. I watched in fascination as my uncle ate it. I did not know what to expect at this stage, but he looked normal at the end and had not suddenly developed some newfound power that I could observe.
I called up my uncle recently to talk about this memory and he laughed as we reminisced. I asked him if he really had gained any superpowers after eating it; he sternly told me to mind my own business. I am happy to report that he is married now, but still, yaji or not, I don’t think he could manage more than one wife.
Recipe for Peanut Butter Soup
Since yaji is a northern Nigerian condiment and most Nigerians living in the UK are from the south of the country, the closest you can get to a commercially bought yaji spice mix is the ‘suya pepper’ available from African grocery shops, especially the ones that cater to West Africans in Peckham and Dalston Kingsland. It is a close substitute for true northern yaji and can be used as a base and customised to taste.
Yaji spice mix
Dried ginger 1 tbsp
Dried garlic 1 tbsp
Smoky paprika 2 tbsp
False cubeb pepper 1 tbsp ground
Ground uda (Grains of Selim) ½ tsp
Salt or vegeta/bouillon powder 1 tbsp (optional)
Black cumin 1 tsp
Ground chilli to taste
Aniseeds or fennel seeds ½ tsp (optional)
Mixture for braising meat
3 cloves of garlic
Chicken stock 700mls
Goat Meat 500g
Peanut butter mix
Peanut butter (unsweetened) 1 heaped tbsp (ideally African Pride brand)
Tomatoes 1 can of plum tomatoes
Scotch bonnet pepper to taste
Make the yaji spice mix by adding all the spices together. It can be stored in a cool place for up to a month.
Rinse the goat meat and place in the pot. Quarter the onions, peel and cut the garlic and ginger and place them in a blender. Puree till the mixture is smooth.
Pour the mixture and one cup of the chicken stock over the meat; cover and bring to boil then reduce heat; cover and cook gently for 1 ½ hrs.
Blend the peanut butter, tomato, ginger, onion and pepper mix with one cup of chicken stock until smooth.
Pour the mixture into a thick bottomed pot like a Dutch pot and bring to the boil, reduce heat and let it simmer gently for 40 mins, stirring regularly, to prevent it sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Check braising liquid on goat meat and top up the liquid with the rest of the stock if it gets below a third of the original volume; the meat always needs to be submerged in the braising liquid so it does not dry out.
Once the peanut base has reduced by a third, add a tablespoon of the yaji spice. If the sauce is too thick add a cup of water to thin out the mixture to the consistency of thick soup.
Pour the peanut butter base and the meat with the braising liquid into an oven-proof dish. Continue to cook until the meat is soft and until the nuts release their oils.
Serve with rice, or steamed fonio, and steamed veggies.
To cut cooking time the peanut butter mix can be made and then frozen, to be used when needed.
If using other meats adjust cooking times. It can be made vegan: just sub out the meat for sweet potatoes, pumpkin and/or cabbage.
Adejoke (Jokè) Bakare is a chef and writer who runs the Chishuru supperclub. She is about to open a restaurant at Brixton Market. Jokè donated her fee for this newsletter back to Vittles.
The illustration is by Onyinye Iwu, an illustrator, designer and teacher based in London. Her work can be found on her website https://www.onyinyeiwu.com/. Her work is inspired by the African continent and specifically her Igbo heritage. Onyinye was paid for this newsletter.