A FLAMING HISTORY – HOW SOUTHERN AFRICA GAVE PERI-PERI TO THE WORLD!

Peri-Peri Chicken at Lion’s Head Restaurant and Brewery

AFRICA’S MOST FAMOUS SPICY FLAVOUR

Pil-Pil, Pili-Pili, Piri-Piri or Peri-Peri, say it how you like, one thing is for certain, its Africa’s most famous flavour. Found as a condiment, marinade or spice, when combined with chicken or prawns you have a dish so good that it’s been spread all over the world.

However, contrary to popular belief (myself included prior to writing this), Peri-Peri (South African spelling) did not originate in Portugal. I always thought it was the Portuguese who introduced Piri-Piri (Portuguese spelling) to Africa when they arrived in the late 15th century. (Bartolomeu Dias, a nobleman of the Portuguese royal household, sailed around Cape Point and on to the southernmost tip of Africa, Agulhas, in 1488, the first European to do so, setting up the route from Europe to Asia). 

Dias named the bay with its table-top mountain, under which Cape Town nestles today, the Cape of Storms (he must have arrived on a bad day!) but in time Dutch seafarers and settlers would recognise its unsurpassed beauty and re-name it Kaap de Goede Hoop (the Cape of Good Hope).

Given this history it made sense to me that Piri-Piri in some form or another must have long been part of Portugal’s food culture however it wasn’t until the 70’s that Piri-Piri chicken took off.

But while it was the Portuguese settlers in Mozambique who can be credited with inventing the dish, saying it is from Portugal is like saying biltong or boerewors is from Holland because its inventors were Dutch settlers in South Africa.

What is Per-Peri to South Africans?

Its hard to imagine South African food culture without Peri-Peri….. in fact, what a terrible thought. For me Peri-Peri brings together the best of Southern African flavours. It’s a lively, zesty, zingy, tangy marinade or sauce with no limit on fire power. Peri-Peri is the ‘sauce-onification’ of the African experience, when it hits my senses I feel the heat of the African sun, the lemon zing takes me to the coast, I can feel that salty sea breeze on my face and the tangy garlic fills my memory with flavours permeating out of every South African kitchen I’ve been in. Peri-Peri is the African experience.

Almost every restaurant In South Africa has their version of Peri-Peri chicken or prawns on the menu, every household has Peri-Peri hot sauce, It’s always on the table, you’ll see it passed around the braai (South African term for BBQ) to the chirps of ‘eish, ja….that’s hot hey’ – or in some case not hot enough!  

Chicken is smothered in Peri-Peri the night before a braai, it’s coated again on the braai and when comes off its immediately smeared again. South Africans love chili but we also love a bit of zing, that lemony zing. We have tangy mayonnaise, chilli pickled onions, we pour vinegar over our fries (slap chips), salt and vinegar chips (Simba), chilli biltong and Peri-Peri is the ultimate zing with a bang.

While Peri-Peri is a South African staple it’s the Mozambique Portuguese who introduced it into the country and if you’re visiting South Africa and want the best Peri-Peri experience it’s the Portuguese restaurants to look for. 

Growing up in South Africa Johannesburg was the mecca for Peri-Peri chicken and prawns. It’s where there was the biggest Portuguese population and the highest concentration of Portuguese restaurants. 

Oh, and Johannesburg is where a little known Peri-Peri restaurant called Nando’s started way back in 1987 in Rosettenville, south of the city of gold, by by Mozambique-born Fernando Duarte and South African-born Robbie Brozin. Such is the uniqueness of this African flavour that Nando’s has taken the Peri-Peri taste all over the world with over a 1000 restaurants globally, 300 in the UK alone and expanding fast into The USA with over 40 outlets there at present.

So how did Peri-Peri come to be South Africa’s favourite flavour?

Back when the Portuguese were a seafaring powerhouse in the late 1400’s, Africa quite challengingly lay stretched out between Europe and the lucrative trading outposts in the East. This forced traders and seamen to literally go ‘the long way round’ Africa’s enormous continent, stopping for a breather halfway at its southern-most tip – at first thought to be Cape Point at the end of the Cape Peninsula, the great divide between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, only to find the actual spot was further along the coast at Agulhas; ‘the Cape of Needles.’ The intrepid Portuguese explorers, looking to open the lucrative ‘spice route’ to the East Indies rounded Africa and ventured up its east coast; later establishing the colonies of Angola (west) and Mozambique (east). It was these sailors who would, ironically, cause chilli to catch fire around the world. 

As far a merchants go, the Portuguese along with the Spanish became the kings of the chilli trade and are responsible to a large degree for the spread of this fiery plant around the world. Chillies are not native to Africa, they originate in central America, namely Peru and Mexico and were only introduced to the rest of the world after Columbus sailed to The Americas in 1492. Chillies had been cultivated in Mesoamerica long before Europeans arrived and was a well-established ingredient in the local food scene. 

The Portuguese saw that chilli had huge potential to perhaps disrupt the then lucrative black pepper industry, referred to as black gold due to its high demand. Until then black pepper was the only available ingredient available to add heat to dishes and was hugely expensive, so the Portuguese figured chilli pepper might be a great alternative and started promoted it along their shipping routes. Hard to imagine today but It was the Portuguese who introduced the chilli to India who until then used black pepper as the only way to add spiciness to their dishes.

Being a hot climate plant, It made sense for Portuguese farmers to cultivate chillis in Mozambique, cutting by half the shipping time needed to reach Asia as demand grew. Additionally chillies are very hardy plants growing well in many climates especially hot ones. Many chilli varieties were introduced into Mozambique and Angola but it seems the Birdseye (Capsicum Frucenscens, same as Tabasco) adapted particularly well to the African climate becoming hugely popular amongst the locals who’s word for it in Swahili is Pil-Pil or Pili-Pili in Angola; meaning hot chilli. Over the centuries as the Birdseye adapted to the African climate it evolved it’s now distinctive ‘Peri-Peri’ taste becoming known as the African Birdseye chilli.

Anthony Bourdain in Mozambique

It’s unclear when exactly the first chilli bushes were planted in Southern Africa but they soon became an important ingredient in the cooking of the local African population who planted them vigorously throughout the region. It is most likely Africans used it way before the Portuguese in their cooking, hence we derive our ‘Piri-Piri’ from the Swahili word.

Later the Portuguese fused Pil-Pil with more common European ingredients such as olive oil, lemons and garlic with chicken and the legendary Mozambican prawns, piri piri as a dish, was born.

THAT Peri-Peri taste

One of the keys to that Mozambican Peri-Peri flavour is sun baked fermented African Birdseye chillies. One of the great miracles of chilli sauce making is the magic transformation a 2- to 3-month fermentation has on the flavour of the fruit. Anyone versed in hot sauce making knows that lactobacillus (bacterial) fermentation is the best way to bring out chilli’s true flavours. I can only imaging that to preserve the Birdseye after harvest, locals would mash it and under the African sun, fermentation would happen very quickly and the resulting flavour was the key to the Peri-Peri taste!

If you ever visit Mozambique, you’ll still see how this played out in local markets with jars (mostly old liquor bottles!) filled with crushed chillies, lemon and garlic, baking in the African heat.

piri-piri-market

Peri-peri chicken Around the World

So popular did Mozambican Peri-Peri chicken become that the Portuguese have left traces of it all over the world. In Macau, a Portuguese colony in south China, the national dish is Galinha à Africana (African Chicken). It is the perfect example of fusion cuisine, taking the classic Peri-Peri chicken recipe of garlic, lemon and Asian Birdseye chilli, adding coconut milk, peanut butter and five Chinese spices.

In Goa, India another old territory there’s a very well-known dish called Goan Chicken Cafreal which is a Peri-Peri masala and chicken curry with coriander.

Piri-Piri chicken, only became popular in Portugal (known as Frango chicken) in the late 60’s when many Portuguese returning from Mozambique and elsewhere brought the dish with them. Today the best place to find frango chicken is in Guia on the Algarve coast, in fact the dish is often referred to around the country as Frango da Guia. Restaurant Ramires in Guia even claims to be the first in Portugal to have introduced Piri-Piri chicken on their menu in 1964.

With the Frango style the mastery is in its simplicity. The most important thing is how the chicken skin is charred over the open fire (hency Nando’s flame-grilled pay-off line) while cooking with a simple Piri-Piri basting oil. Served with a slice of lemon and Piri-Piri sauce on the side, it’s as no fuss and unpretentious as cooking gets.

Frango Chicken at Ramires

Best Places to get Piri-Piri in Portugal

Known as the Big Three, these are the best restaurants in Portugal to get Frango chicken

Conclusion

So thats the history of Peri-Peri chicken Africas culinary gift to the world, I hope it excites you as much as us! If you know more about the history of Peri-Peri or have crazy experiences leave a comment below we would love to know!

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