The peppers themselves that grow here, are small, and have a hot, pungent taste. Fresh, dried, cooked or made into a fiery sauce, they pack real heat into spicy dishes. They are Birds Eye Chillies, and are small, thin, pointy peppers that are red when mature, and green when unripe but can be eaten raw. Sometimes called Peri Peri or Peli Peli, the variations in spelling derive from the various pronunciations of the word in parts of Africa, but they are called Piri Piri in Portugal.
Chilli peppers are part of the Capsicum family of plants, and this is the infamous chemical that gives them their heat.

If you are interested in growing your own Birds Eye Chilli plants, they germinate best when they are eaten by birds and pass through the bird’s digestive system. That’s obviously not practical in your home garden!

But there are ways to prepare the seeds to make germination more successful without the birds’ intervention, helping them sprout in a week instead of a month. They have a hard time germinating on their own as they have a tough coating that is difficult to break down under normal soil conditions, so soak the seeds before planting them to facilitate germination. If you use plain water, soak them for six hours, or mix one part bleach with nine parts water and soak for five minutes.

Soaking the seeds softens the tough coating so the sprouts can emerge.

Apparently it is beneficial to start them off indoors in a controlled heat environment, and when four or five leaves appear on the sprouts it is safe to plant them outside.

Every restaurant and Portuguese mother has their own secret ingredient that makes their Frango Piri-Piri the best, but overall it is a fairly simple dish. The chicken is spatchcocked (split and opened out flat) and marinaded (or not) in a sauce that typically would contains ingredients such as garlic, olive oil, salt, lemon juice, and of course piri-piri chillies, along with whatever other secret ingredients are deemed to be essential! Although you can cook Frango Piri Piri in an oven, cooking it over a coal BBQ really adds more flavour. It is unclear where the recipe originated, as both Portuguese-Angolans and Portuguese-Mozambicans claim to have created the special mix.

Regardless, the recipe remains a celebration of the cultural legacy and culinary fusions of the region.

I wondered how hot piri piri peppers were, and found that the heat or spiciness of peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units. The Scoville scale was created by Wilbur Scoville in 1912 and measures the amount of capsaicin in a pepper using his Scoville Organoleptic Test, and assigns it a number rating in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) based on how many times he had to dilute the solution to eliminate the heat. He mixed an alcohol-based extract of capsaicin oil from a pepper into a solution of sugar water and placed the solution onto the tongues of taste testers (can you imagine volunteering for that job!). Little by little, he diluted the solution with more water until his taste testers told him that it no longer tasted hot. However, since 2011, this method of rating has largely been superseded by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to analytically quantify the capsaicinoid content as an indicator of pungency.

Jalapeño peppers, for instance, have a Scoville rating of 10,000, meaning a jalapeño solution would have to be diluted 10,000 times before the heat was neutralized. Ghost Peppers have an awesome level of heat, and are one of the original super-hot peppers, with a range in heat from 855,000 to over 1,000,000 SHUs, but the Carolina Reaper takes heat to a whole new level - it is officially the hottest pepper in the world with a reported whopping level of over 2,000,000 (yes, two million!) SHUs.

Piri Piri peppers are hot for sure, but, with a Scoville ranking of 50,000 – 100,000, Piri Piri ranks at the bottom end of ‘habanero-hot’.

By comparison, bell peppers and banana peppers come in with a lowly rating of between 100 and 900 Scoville units.

Oh and lastly, you might want to wear gloves when working with any chillies, especially if you wear contact lenses. Capsaicin can stay on your fingers for several hours and really stings when you touch your face or eye area (or for that matter, your other important places!). To guard against unnecessary pain, wear gloves while handling the peppers and carefully clean the knife, surfaces, and anything else the cut chillies came in contact with when you are finished.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan