For many native Nigerians, the sight of suya street vendors laboring over charcoal grills that carry the aroma of marinated spiced meat evokes memories of home.
Chef Hema Agwu recalls it feeling like Christmas in Lagos when his father arrived home from work with marinated beef, cucumber rounds and slivers of onions wrapped in newspaper pages. “It’s an indescribable feeling,” Agwu says. “It’s like a moment. You smell the suya and your mind is just wandering, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait.’” The self-taught 29-year-old-chef moved to New York City in 2003 and longed for the suya his father brought home on rare occasions. “I’ve been suffering in New York with terrible suya,” he said.
His yearning for suya “done well” led him to launch The Suya Guy, in 2016, a pop-up restaurant on the lively Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. At his current location, the scent of stewed tomatoes and sweet plantains browning in hot oil permeates the air on any given day. Once placing your order, you can hear the hot grill sizzling with your choice of protein (shrimp, chicken, beef)—marinated in a housemade suya spice rub, a blend of ginger, garlic, onion, chile, paprika, ground peanuts, black pepper and a few additional ingredients chef Agwu declines to share.
His suya is served with jollof rice, popular throughout West Africa, and side options of sweet plantains, avocado, boiled egg and kale that are also on the menu under “build your own bowl,” priced at about $12.00. It’s a combination that shocked his cousin when he first visited the pop-up: “Suya with jollof rice, that doesn’t work,” his cousin said. But Agwu argues that it does, and many locals, who have become regulars, agree.
The beef marinated in a suya spice overnight is tender and packed with heat. The acidity from stewed tomatoes, mixed into the jollof rice, cuts through the spice of the beef. A side of grilled ripe plantains adds hints of sweetness to the bright, peppery dish. Before serving, chef Agwu showers his vibrant-annatto-colored suya spice onto your bowl with a “salt bae” flare that has earned him the title “suya bae” from his Instagram followers.
“Nothing would make me prouder than to get suya out there,” Agwu says. “I’m serving suya in a way that I don’t think has been done before.”
The street food isn’t unknown in New York City. Many Nigerian restaurants serve it on their extensive menus along with other specialty dishes such as efo riro soups, asaro (yam porridge) and puff-puff pastries. But Agwu says he’s eager to make suya stand on its own as a type of dish, spice and marinade that is versatile and accessible to all. Adding to the phenomenon of “build your own bowl” fast-casual options.
Before he became “The Suya Guy,” Agwu was an OSHA trainer. A trip back to Nigeria in 2013 aroused memories of wanting to become a chef at the age of eight, when he cooked rice for family dinners, standing on a stool in order to reach the stove. He returned to the U.S. eager to replicate the suya he had in Nigeria, and grilled for family and friends in his backyard until perfecting his suya spice blend and grilling technique.
“I want to bring that feeling of home to America,” says Agwu. “I want to make suya as good as it is back home. I want to transport people to Nigeria.”
To stay updated on Agwu’s next appearances at local festivals and events, check out The Suya Guy on Instagram.