Hema Agwu, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, has found a flamboyant way of bringing the taste of his country to New York. The 29-year-old self-taught chef serves suya — a roasted skewer meat relished in the streets of Nigeria — at The Suya Guy. After making an initial appearance last November as a pop-up in Crown Heights, the eatery is back – permanently.
Marinated with a house-made hot spice blend, the tender meat is presented with colorful seasonal vegetables and a final sprinkling of the suya spice, which Agwu performs with a showman’s flourish. The end result, he claims, leaves even those who resist spicy food asking for more.
The Nigerian community in the U.S. has been growing quickly and is significantly concentrated in Texas and New York. They also constitute one of the most educated ethnic groups, according to a 2017 Census Bureau report. In spite of the size and upward mobility of the community, however, Nigerian food hasn’t made a splash in the New York food scene and has stayed relatively under wraps for most people outside West African communities.
New York City, according to census data, has 23,530 foreign-born Nigerians, although the community count becomes much higher when Nigerian-Americans are included. However, there is no Nigerian restaurant yet in Manhattan; the eateries have kept to Brooklyn and Queens, where the community is residentially concentrated.
“There were always Nigerian restaurants in New York, but they were not places where you can take friends because they were mostly ‘hole in the wall’,” says Lookman Mashood, chef and owner of Buka, a Nigerian restaurant in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Before Mashood opened Buka in 2010, he says, he only remembers one restaurant near JFK Airport where people could be seated and entertained in groups.
Despite Nigerians being the most numerous among West Africans in the US, it is Senegalese cuisine that seems to have a somewhat greater visibility. Although there are many similarities among the region’s food cultures, Nigerian food also has its distinctions. “There is a common thread in all of Africa, but Nigerian food is unique because we like powerful flavors,” Agwu says. “So, if we have pepper, it is a very strong pepper flavor.”
“The food from Nigeria is very authentic – what many people would consider spicy but not your average spicy – it is spicier than the average spicy to be what people are used to. We eat a lot of goat and fish and snail,” says Mashood, who, like Agwu, was raised in Lagos and who moved to the U.S. in 1996.
One important difference between African cuisines is the effects of colonization. Mashood says that, in Senegal and much of Francophone West Africa, there is a lot more French culinary influence on the local cuisine. Whereas in Nigeria and Ghana, he says, the British colonizers did not interfere as much with the local cuisine and the food stayed authentic to old ways.
To be sure, Nigerian cuisine in itself is no uniform monolith. As a highly diverse country of more than 250 different cultural and ethnic groups, all of which have their own unique twists on regional dishes, Nigerian food, too, has remarkable variations, especially depending on the availability of ingredients in a particular region.
“Part of the reason why I chose suya and why I started to make my own spice is because it is very important to Nigerians. When anybody sees suya, nobody talks about where you are from in the country,” says Agwu, who felt he wanted “really good suya” but couldn’t find it in New York.
Suya, which is sometimes also referred to as “African shish kebab,” originated in northern Nigeria but became popular throughout the country. The meat used is typically beef and often halal due to its origin in the north, where most of the country’s Muslim population lives. The annatto-colored spice marinade is made by grinding roasted peanuts with ingredients such as cayenne, pepper, dried garlic, dried ginger and dried onion.
The Suya Guy innovates on this traditional favorite. Each bowl in his restaurant starts with a base of a few spoonfuls of fried or jollof rice and layered with seasonal vegetables such as bell peppers, cucumbers, avocados, tomatoes, onions and cabbage, followed by seasoning. The suya-marinated grilled beef or chicken or eggplant is then layered on top and sprinkled again with a version of the spice. Strewn with housemade traditional tomato and bell pepper sauce, the bowl is completed with grilled sweet plantain laid on top.
“The experience you get when you have one of these bowls is that you get everything – a mix of flavors – when you taste the suya. It is a really unique mix. It is an experience – you don’t get the same bite twice,” says Agwu.
When asked why it has taken Nigerians time to bring their cuisine out in the open, Agwu laughs, replying, “Maybe they were too busy being doctors and lawyers.” Before he decided to work with food full time, Agwu had earned a bachelor’s degree in politics from the State University of New York in Albany and taken an LSAT exam. His family moved to Long Island, N.Y. from Nigeria when he was in high school, for education reasons, he says. “I think there has been a lack of entrepreneurship in the Nigerian diaspora and it is just beginning to come out. I think there are a lot of chefs (like me) who didn’t feel in the past that our food was wanted.”
Observers in academia echo this idea. “Nigerians are really proud of their culture,” says Elisha Renne, a professor of Anthropology and African Studies at University of Michigan. “They don’t really care if Americans like their food. There is a sense that it is for them.” A part of the reason, she says, could also be that a sizable portion of Nigerian immigrants in the U.S. are English-speaking skilled professionals who do not join the restaurant industry, which historically has been immigrant-driven in the U.S. due to its low barriers of entry and also, therefore, championed by immigrant entrepreneurs.
In October, New York had its sixth annual African restaurants week featuring events around traditional African and Afro-fusion cultural and gastronomical experiences around the city in 25 restaurants.
Nigerians favor bold and spicy flavors, with a hint of surprise, and this is not limited to food. “Look at our fashion or even our music,” says Mashood. “In Africa, wax prints are the most popular – they are very flowery, they are very colorful. An African would be dressed very colorfully.” He beatboxes a vigorous Afrobeat. “So is our food – you don’t just grill some meat with flavors on top and put it on my plate. No. I have to feel the taste even in between the meat.”
“I think there is just a level of curiosity with African cuisine and Nigerian cuisine. There is also just people who want food. It is food and fantastic food,” says Agwu.
When asked why Nigerian cuisine is opening up to New Yorkers now, Agwu, too, sees a direct connection with the rise of Nigerian fashion globally, the growing prominence of Afrobeat in the mainstream music industry and space carved in the literary world by African writers and poets. It was only a matter of time, he feels, until the other arts, including the culinary one, followed suit. “The presence of African cuisine in New York is definitely on the upward – I see a lot more restaurants, a lot more chefs doing a lot more creative stuff,” he added. “African cuisine is sort of buzzing and I just hope to make it bigger.”
Agwu, along with his business partner Folusho Adeyema, is now busy refurbishing The Suya Guy, which re-opened January 17. Mashood, meanwhile, has plans to open a Manhattan outpost of Buka in Harlem by mid-year.