The fire burns and the smoke rises in this violence-torn Nigerian city, but the sweet smell that follows makes clear there is no reason to be afraid — unless you are vegetarian.
“The people here have high culinary taste,” 32-year-old Isa Jaja explained while trimming fat off a slab of beef at his food hut along a road where security forces in trucks regularly prowl, rifles at the ready.
“If you want your suya to sell, you have to have good spices,” he added, referring to the seasoned grilled meat he prepares.
The northeastern city of Maiduguri has been at the centre of Islamist group Boko Haram’s deadly insurgency, but its roadside barbecue shacks, a deeply rooted part of northern Nigerian culture, have kept the flame alive.
They live with fewer customers, a constant threat of violence and hours limited by a curfew, but countless numbers of suya shacks still dot the roadsides, logs ablaze under skewers of beef, tripe and kidney, to name a few.
“We just manage to stay afloat because, if I stop this, what do I do?” said Yakubu Ali, a 28-year-old suya seller and father of two young children who has hawked grilled beef and chicken at his roadside hut for a decade.
As attacks by Boko Haram — whose name means “Western education is sin” — have left more than 1,000 people dead since mid-2009, thousands have fled this impoverished city near the borders with Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
But those who remain must eat — and suya sellers are more than willing to feed them.
Suya holds a particular place in the culture of northern Nigeria, a mainly Muslim region where members of the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups account for most of the population.
Nigeria has traditionally depended on northern farmers and herdsmen for cattle rearing, and the Fulani nomadic lifestyle, including cooking over open fires outdoors, may have also played a role, said Yemisi Ogbe, a Nigerian food writer who keeps a blog at longthroatmemoirs.com.
“There is a longstanding, organic connection between the nation’s original rearers of cattle and the preparation of meat,” she said.
Scenes from Nigeria’s northern regions help illustrate the point, with staff-wielding Fulani herdsmen ushering cattle across dusty roads and off into pastureland.
That said, suya in its innumerable forms has definitively become a Nigerian dish — though with each region or city claiming their superiority and boasting their own methods of preparation.
Beyond that, such grilled meat is common in many African nations — and takes its place among the barbecue and kebab traditions across the world.
In the Hausa language, the word suya signifies frying or roasting, and preparations in Nigeria tend to follow some basic steps, with variations depending on local tastes.
Traditionally, beef or ram are the main types of meat used, though more recently chicken has become common. Innards are also cooked, with kidney, liver and sponge-like tripe among the parts roasted.
A dried-meat version, called kilishi, is also popular.
More unusual parts, including testicles, are said to be available for those who are either particularly brave or have iron-clad stomachs.
Ogbe says her favourites include kidney and shaki, a word for tripe.
Given the tradition’s base in the mainly Muslim north, halal meat preparation methods are often employed.
The meat is usually seasoned with a variety of spices. Ogbe says they tend to include fried and ground peanuts, ginger, red pepper, salt and nutmeg, among others.
Lean meat is always used, she said, and the fat trimmed from it is cooked down and used in the cooking process as well.
Regional differences can often come in the types of spices used, while some areas prefer certain types of meats over others.
Jaja, dressed in a yellow butcher’s smock at his Maiduguri hut, doesn’t hesitate when asked which city has the best suya, quickly naming his own. He says spices make the difference, mentioning garlic and ginger, among others.
Herders from neighbouring Chad bring him his meat, he said, adding that Maiduguri residents will not accept low-quality beef.
But when judging the quality of his suya, it is probably best to take degree of difficulty into account. Jaja and others in Maiduguri face major risks when they set up for work each morning.
“Of course we are afraid,” he said. “Each time we hear gunshots, we just lock up and go.”
Ali says the curfew has badly hurt his business, and when violence hits the markets, he is unable to buy supplies. But, he contends, you still will not find better suya anywhere.
“If you know suya, when you eat this you can tell the difference,” he said.
[A roadside vendor cuts locally prepared barbecue popularly known as “suya” in Maiduguri, Nigeria on May 11. AFP Photo/Pius Utomi Ekpei]