In this article and podcast – the history of piri piri chicken, one of the world’s most popular spicy grilled chicken dishes. From it’s origins, to modern chain restaurant success as part of the Nando’s restaurant chain.
Who invented the original piri piri sauce? And how did that become piri piri chicken and part of an international craze.
Plus, the best piri piri chicken is certainly not at Nandos… We explore the local chicken scene in a European country where it has almost become a national dish.
History Of Piri Piri Chicken & Nandos Podcast
IN THIS EPISODE:
- The story of piri-piri chicken, what is piri piri sauce and where did it come from?
- Plus, a short history of Nandos, the international piri piri chicken chain restaurant.
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PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE IS BELOW – NOT EDITED FOR GRAMMAR/SPELLING:
What is Peri Peri Chicken?
Peri peri – also spelt/pronounced piri piri and sometimes pili pili is the name of a type of chili, and also the name of a sauce made with that chili…
At it’s most basic form Piri piri Chicken is grilled chicken that has been marinated in that spicy chili piri piri sauce – though some grill the chicken first, then simply baste the sauce on at the end. It’s super popular with people sticking to a paleo diet.
At it’s best, it is a BBQd on coals, its a whole spatchcocked (butterflied) young chicken of about 3 to 4 months old, weighing less than 1kg, coated with that wondrous chili sauce, crispy and salty skin on the outside and literally oozing juiciness with every slightly greasy bite.
What goes into the sauce? Where and when was it invented? We’ll be getting into that soon.
My first question to listeners is, Have you had Peri Peri chicken before? If you are from the USA you may have been missing out on excellent way to enjoy chicken.
UK, Australian, South African and of course Portuguese listeners, amongst others, will be incredibly familiar with this dish! Although, as we’ll discuss, it may have been present in Portuguese and some African cuisine since the early 16th century, it has become world famous due to the rapid domination of the spicy chicken market worldwide by South African chain restaurant Nandos.
But is it a south African dish originally? We’ll be asking that too, later in this episode.
Firstly, for the uninitiated, What Is Nandos?
They specialise in piri piri chicken with chips, of different spice levels. Is it the best piri piri chicken in the world? Hell no! It’s fast food, its cheap and its popular, but my personal experience of Nandos had been quite underwhelming compared to eating the real thing in Portugal. That said, for those who don’t know the difference, it’s obviously a very popular choice… But so is McDonalds, so whatcha gonna do?
As of 2019 Nando’s had 42 restaurants in the US: 6 in Washington, D.C., 12 in Illinois, 10 in Virginia, and 14 in Maryland . and the first US branch didn’t open until 2008 – So a lot of American listeners might not be so familiar with the chain, though hopefully many may have tried this spicy chicken at some point.
In The UK there are over 300 Nandos restaurants – feeding an estimated 800,000 diners per week. So, it’s become a bit of a national tradition. Also, more than 200 branches in Australia. So we are both quite familiar with it.
Fernando Duarte and his friend Robert Brozin are the founders of the first Nando’s restaurant bought a joint previously called “ChickenLand”, in the southern Johannesburg area of Rosettenville, and renamed it Nando’s, after the owner Fernando – who was born in Mozambique, a Portuguese colony until 1975, to Portuguese parents.
The restaurant was already making Mozambique-portuguese style spicy chicken when they bought it, so its hard to say if their world famous recipe really belongs to the original owners of Chicken land, or if Fernando changed it up. They took over that first branch and opened in SA in 1987 And by 1997, 105 Nando’s restaurants had opened in SA.
So, the international fame of peri Peri chicken is actually pretty recent, and in the USA it seems like it’s so recent that Nando’s has only made it to 4 states? But tweet us @foodfuntravel – Are you from the USA and have you had piri piri chicken their anywhere but in a Nandos restaurant? Let us know where.
But, In Portugal and Mozambique, who needs Nandos? They’ve been cooking juicier, better piri piri chicken for a very long time.
In Portugal it’s a very popular pastime to head to the Churrasqueria – The Portuguese Grill Houses – Some churrasquerias grill all types of meat and fish. Some specialise exclusively in Chicken – and your only ordering choice is how much chicken, how spicy and what sides do you want – normally fries with some a big bottle of piri piri oil or sauce to add even more spice to your cooked chicken.
In Portugal, the dish is called Frango assado com piri-piri – simply BBQ chicken with piri piri, and it’s hard to find a small town that doesn’t have it for sale. Take away or eat it, it’s certainly a favourite dish in Portugal. You can’t help but smell it in the air, and then peak through the window at the grill master flipping the whole spatchcocked chickens, smoke billowing around them. Certainly not rotisserie, always turned by hand on a flat BBQ grill. I’ve seen ones where they have maybe 50 or more chickens grilling side by side at once along a massive grill.
The churrasqueira is a real family experience, and the popular places would be standing room only on a saturday or sunday afternoon on the algarve – even during winter off season, when you could search out the proper local places, not focused on serving tourists.
So What Is Peri Peri Sauce & How did it originate?
The word peri peri comes from the Swahilli word “pilipili” meaning “pepper” – and just like in English, the word pepper can refer to black pepper, chili pepper, or bell pepper – or at least that’s what google translate tells me. That said, the primary translation seems for it to mean Chili pepper, and as an adjective, it means spicy. Swahili is today spoken in South East Africa, most importantly for this story, in Mozambique.
There are lots of different estimates on the origin of Swahili language, the oldest record of its use in Mozambique is from the written record of Portuguese missionaries there in 1562 (Page 14). As chilis came from the new world though, it seems likely the word pili pili was either taken from previous uses – perhaps being used originally for black pepper, or it reached Swahili via another language. Either way, the Portuguese are famed for spreading chilis around the world, written records show they reached Goa in India, via Portuguese traders, and were being used to cook with by 1516.
The other theory is that it is from the Tsonga language of Mozambique region, which is part of the same language group as Swahili. but the word, with slightly varying pronunciations, seems to exist across the region from the Congo basin to South Africa.
As Mozambique became a Portuguese colony in 1498, its quite likely the chilis arrived there also in the early 16th century.
PiriPiri, specifically refers to one type of Chili that was the major one in Mozambique historically. Also known as the The Malagueta chili it is similar in heat and look to the Bird’s Eye chili, and many sources wrongly claim them to be the same. Botanically they are not the same. The Malagueta typically grows longer than the birdseye, but it is often harvested young, while still smaller like a birdseye, but can actually grow to about 2 inches in length. In Portugal specifically, those younger ones are called piri-piri. In Mozambique, they are all called piri-piri apparently.
Birdseye chilis on the other hand are predominantly found in SE Asia. There is also an “African Birds Eye Chili” which is from the same botanical sub-group as the Malagueta, so this could also be leading to some confusion!
For chili nerds, the SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS of the Malagueta run from 60,000-100,000 SHU. compared to a Jalapeno at about 2.5k to 8k.
The Malagueta chili was brought from central America or the caribbean, by the Portuguese, to Brazil and to Mozambique. It’s still one of the most popular chilis in Brazil today – and the name malagueta is still popular, though piripiri is also used today.
The peri peri sauce itself has varying recipes, not surprisingly the common ingredient in all of them is peri peri chilis. Other main ingredients are lemon, salt and oil. Other optional ingredients include onion, bell pepper, garlic, bay leaves, paprika, basil, oregano, and tarragon
Though it is most popular used with Chicken around the world, In Mozambique it is like a universal sauce that may be used with meat or seafood. When we lived in Portugal, I used to marinade tiger prawns with piri piri. It was awesome!
Who invented Piri Piri Chicken?
So, was peri peri chicken just a catchier name than Malagueta chicken? Does Piri piri chicken have a Mozambican origin? And who first made the sauce?
The name would suggest that the sauce was first created in Mozambique, or nearby. Historical record seems to let us down at this point. Could the sauce have been invented by Portuguese colonisers living in Mozambique and then the recipe made it’s way back to Portugal?
Was the sauce actually invented in Brazil – one author I read thinks it might have been, and then the name got changed. Chili sauces emerged simultaneously worldwide, so it’s a little hard to say where this specific type of mix of ingredients could first have been made. But for me, the name being taken from the local African language, by the Portuguese, gives a strong connection to Mozambique and that region, even if the sauce was first made in Portugal from the imported chilis.
What about Piri Piri Chicken as a dish?
At a time when butchering the chicken young, and eating a whole grilled chicken would have seemed pretty wasteful, and completely out of reach of those who were living a mostly subsistence lifestyle, some authors have suggested that whole grilled piri piri chicken may not have made it onto dining tables until the 20th century.
The dish really took hold in Portugal in the 1970s, after 1974 due to intensive farming bringing down the cost of chickens but also because, after the fall of the dictator in 1974, the Portuguese empire started to dissolve, and many overseas residents returned from the African colonies, bringing local foods like piri piri sauce back with them and the idea of marinating meat in this sauce.
Iona McCleery, associate professor of medieval history and Portuguese history at the University of Leeds, UK, believes that eating chili in Portugal was pretty rare historically, even though they planted so much of it in the colonies. And most of the production was used locally.
Restaurant Ramires, in the small town of Guia on the Algarve coast, claims to have been the first restaurant in Portugal to start serving Piri Piri Chicken. They claim they first served it in 1964, as they’d been getting requests from those returning from the colonies. As larger migrations happened after 1974, the demand in the region grew and grew.
As the epicentre of Piri Piri Chicken in Portugal, Guia hosts an annual piri-piri chicken festival (Festa do Frango da Guia), which normally takes place every year in early August.
There seems to be no written record of piri piri chicken specifically being eaten in Mozambique any earlier than these reports from returning Portuguese coming home and trying to replicate it in Portugal. So, how long had the sauce been used with grilled chicken in Mozambique? No one seems to know. Though one author claims it was Indian immigrants from Goa, coming to Mozambique, who invented the sauce. Which could explain why it took so long for the sauce to make it back to Portugal for the first time – perhaps it was a much later invention than we’d expect.