Most people speculate that the origins of this dish are from Mozambique, but that may not be the case. Some of those who have studied the origins of this dish claim that in fact it originated in South America.
Chillies first came from South America
Professor Rebecca Earle, a food historian at the University of Warwick, says, the Spanish and Portuguese colonies were first responsible for disseminating chillies and other foodstuff from Mexico and Central America around the globe in the 15th and 16th century. "There was nowhere else in the world that had those little chilli peppers before Columbus's arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, they didn't even have them in India."
Chilli peppers originated in Bolivia and were first cultivated in Mexico. After the Columbian Exchange, many cultivars of chilli pepper spread around the world, used for both food and traditional medicine.
Columbus made a couple of visits to the New World. He had an interest in finding routes to South America or the New World because he couldn't travel through the Indian Ocean. But it was when the Portuguese explorers came to Brazil a few years later and brought the chillies to Goa, in India, chillies were able to spread to Asia and Africa, to the people who could really do something interesting with them.
It seems possible that they showed up in Europe before the Portuguese brought them to Africa and Asia. It’s likely that it was Mozambique where these wonderful little mouth scorchers were made into a sauce we know as piri piri, something we still enjoy to this day.
Superb and affordable
With a half frango setting you back as little as €7.50 it obvious that piri piri chicken isn't just an affordable and delicious meal in the Algarve: it's an intrinsic part of the culture. Frango piri piri got really popular here in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it's a concept influenced by Mozambique and southern Africa. In South Africa it’s called PERi-PERi , and it’s not the same thing. It’s similar but any aficionado will tell you, it’s just not the same. Nando's serve the South African version, but Google Piri Piri, in London there are several genuine restaurants. Don’t settle for anything less.
Piri piri chicken is, in many ways, evidence of the long history of migration. Having brought chillies over from the Americas, Portuguese settlers in Africa found that the peppers flourished in their new home and quickly became a culinary mainstay in countries like Mozambique and Cape Verde. However, despite crossing innumerable seas and borders to get from the Americas to Africa, it's only in relatively recent history that the piri piri chicken has cemented its status in Portuguese diets, especially the Algarve.
Now chillis are grown in the Algarve, and in various strengths, and they range from mild to ‘my mouth has just exploded’. The most important thing is you do NOT want something so hot it blows your head off. Yes, these are hot, but they have complexity and fruitiness. For chilliheads, they top out at around 175,000 on the Scoville scale--well below that of the 2,000,000 of the Carolina Reaper, the hottest pepper out there. The Scoville Scale is a measurement of the heat and pungency of chili peppers where each pepper is recorded in Scoville Heat Units.
To make piri piri sauce the small malaguetas is the normal choice. The malagueta is one of the most popular chillis in Brazil and is also used widely in Portugal and Mozambique. Its name comes from an unrelated spice in West Africa called the melegueta, which causes some confusion. These rate Scoville Heat Units: 60,000-100,000 SHU. These are rated as medium, number 4 of the heat scale. The top of the heat range is 15,000,000 - 16,000,000 with a chili heat rating of 10. Don’t even think about using the super hots for piri piri, these are strictly for the hot and spicy fans. Hot peppers are a lot of fun but, please take them seriously and handle with care.
Can you make your own piri piri sauce?
Of course you can, but it’s not easy. Coarsely chop the peppers and discard stems. Place the chillis and their seeds, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and as much extra virgin olive oil as you wish in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and purée. Pour the mixture into a small glass jar and let steep for several days in the fridge. Some people add whisky to the mix. Personally, I would leave this to the experts. You can buy piri piri sauce in the supermarket but choose with care if you want the best. Several companies now sell their own locally ‘home’ made sauce, Google it. These are generally better than the products sold in the shops.
Let the restaurant do the cooking
However hard you try, you stand little chance of ever achieving the superb flavours that the leading frango piri piri restaurants achieve. They have been doing it for years, and they are not just excellent but inexpensive. Charcoal grilled, coated with their own sauce. If you ever see one of these restaurants with a commercial bottle of piri piri sauce, leave! You are in the wrong place. Each one will tell you that their recipe is a closely guarded secret. It probably is.
Readers will have their own favourite restaurants, and I hope you will send in a comment about where you think is the best chicken. There are well known even famous, restaurants such as O Ribeirinho, Ramires or O Teodósio in Guia. O Casarão in Lagoa, opposite the Cepsa petrol station is one of my favourites. Drive up into Monchique and on the way up to Foia the long established Paraiso da Montanha, said to be the oldest established piri piri restaurant in the area. Superb views out over the Algarve is a real bonus.
Now let me know your favourite. Don’t keep it a secret!
Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy.