11 February 2009

Nigeria: Lagos Residents in the World of Beef Kebab

opinion

Lagos — Lagos has been described by many as incredibly vibrant and ever changing city.

Lagos is known to many as the economic powerhouse of Nigeria and the preferred destination for the sub-region. Ultimately, the city is being projected as one of the mega cities in Africa by 2015.

Before now, when Governor Babatunde Fashola's administration had not started its campaign of demolishing illegal structures, the city presented amazing scenery changes often depending on the location one finds himself within the Centre of Excellence - the long winding bridges that link the island to the mainland, the sea of street traders, beggars, touts, different uniformed people and to the tedious chaos usually present on all streets.

In spite of this vivacity and change, there is one spectacle that is constant within Lagos to all classes of people ranging from those living in highbrow Ikoyi to Victoria Island, Obalende, Ikeja, Maryland, Lekki, Ajah, Egbeda, Gbagada, Oshodi or Iyana Ipaja; it is a delicacy called Suya. To the elite, it called Beef Kebab. Suya is simple roasted meat on a stick. It is also barbecued meat spiced with pepper, onions and sometimes cabbage and it is a delight many people associate with. This grilled meaty food is a kind of snacks, which people take as whole meal for dinner and during their leisure periods. But due to its popularity and acceptability, it can be found in practically all street corners within Lagos.

Suya is a delight any class can savour. It has no barrier because sellers can be found on street tails displaying the various sizes of kebabs and their improvised grills on a wooden table. Beef kebabs are a no-fuss to prepare for the skilful northerners. However, if you are in search of adventure or give a special person a nice treat, there are some places where Suya takes on different meanings as the sellers, though not different from those in other areas in terms of physical look, mode of dressing, qualification or have special skills to make the delicacy a meal to relish; Ikoyi Hotel Suya Spot and the Obalende Suya are a delight anytime.

These two spots give suya preparation a new meaning. The sellers are mostly Muslims from the northern part of Nigeria and this attests to their skills, as the North is known for the production of the best grilled meat. The kebab sellers prepare their products outside on open grills. These outdoor chefs in both Obalende and Ikoyi Hotel operate with great skill and speed to meet the demand of their large clientele. They sweat profusely while trying to get the meat ready and juggle both shouting orders and sometimes insults without missing a beat in their routine to ensure they do not give Suya to the people who have not paid. They count their Suya sticks frequently. Some hook the meat with sticks in the middle while others just put assorted meat on the hot grill and cut the product according to the fee one pays and their discretion.

Though Ikoyi Hotel itself is a comparatively quiet establishment set in a classy corner of one of Lagos high brow zones, the Suya spot located in its parking lot is quite different - it is noisy, steamy, over-crowded, hot and humid. Unlike inside the hotel where customers are served and treated like kings in a courteous manner, they have to jostle, shout orders and sometimes trade insults before getting served; it is not a place where the gentlemanly nature thrives.

The physical trimmings are also not up to the standard one expects in the area; there is a giant outdoor barbecue grill with a large kiosk behind it. This kiosk serves two purposes; it doubles as the pantry and kitchen. One cannot see any fancy table and chairs on which to relax, there are no drinks or other snacks around; the only thing that is found is the suya on the grills, the attendant and people standing about waiting to buy the sumptuous meal. The system is simple; line up and wait for your turn to be served. Meanwhile, while waiting to be served, the natural thing is to entertain oneself by drinking in the spicy smoke and the ambiance of the noise made by other customers waiting their turns.

The suya sellers are always on their toes attending to customers; they are so busy that they have neither the time nor the inclination to humour their customers or crack jokes with the exception of few regulars and anyone that can speak their native dialect, Hausa, who get preferential treatment, as the chefs even joke with them while their orders are being taken.

The clientele for the delicious meaty morsels ranges from tired office workers to business executives and local youths from miles around. The menu includes pieces of beef, liver, kidney, chicken gizzards, tripe (shaki), cow hide (ponmo), chicken and other type of meat that one may not have the habit of trying out at home. The cost of suya depends on the size or the part being bought. The meat is grilled over an open fire after it is basted with a mixture of oil and spices that include pepper, onions, ground peanuts (kulikuli), ground ginger and cinnamon. The skewered meat is ready for sale. It is then expertly sliced on well-worn cutting boards and sliced onions, cabbage and tomatoes are added and if one likes, assorted spices and chilies are also added before the aromatic mix is wrapped up into a neat box with old newspapers.

Amidst great noise, friendly insults, teasing banters and sometimes grave arguments, deliciously spiced meat is produced and it is time for a feast. The fragrant and peppery aroma of deliciously spiced meat that permeates the air around the hotel every evening serves as a great temptation to the vegetarian.

You want a sensory and mouth-watering adventure? Then, queue to buy suya at the eatery located in the parking lot of the famed hotel where any visitor can truly be inculcated into one of the spicy flavours of Nigerian food.

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