Piri Piri: A Global Pepper
Is it weird that some of my best travel memories involve takeout chicken? In Lisbon, for example, I have a distinct memory of sitting down on a park bench to tear into juicy frango no churrasco, whole charcoal-roasted chicken dripping with hot chile oil. Served over a bed of crispy fried potatoes and fluffy rice, there’s nothing quite like it after a long day of sightseeing.
At the time, I didn’t think much about it. Later, I would learn that the dried chiles used to infuse the oil which coat this chicken are called bird’s eye chiles, also known as piri piri chiles. As it turns out, this was just one incarnation of piri piri chicken, a Portuguese-African recipe which has in recent years taken the world by storm. So how did a Portuguese dish, named after a pepper which originated in Brazil, end up with a name derived from Swahili? And how has it made its way across the world in the form of a sauce which bears little resemblance to what you’ll find in Portugal?
Chiles: one of the first globalized foods
As discussed in our last chile pepper post, Columbus “discovered” chiles in the Caribbean islands (which he named the “Indies,” mistakenly believing that he had landed in Asia) as part of a mission to find a Western trade route to India.
Indian spices, particularly black peppercorns, were so valuable in Europe at that time that they were used as currency. Until the mid-1400s, nearly all of the world’s black pepper originated in India and was traded via merchants in Venice through the Levant. When the Ottoman Empire took control of the western end of the Silk Road, rivalries and disputes over territories interrupted the flow of luxury imports into Europe. As a result, Europeans sought alternative trade routes to the riches of Asia.
By the time Columbus got to the Caribbean, chiles had long since been domesticated by native populations—archaeologists have traced their origins back some 7,000 years, to the Tehuacán valley of central Mexico. Columbus appears to have encountered multiple varieties of chiles in the Caribbean, which he called pimiento, after the black pepper (pimenta) he had hoped to find. He brought the spicy pods, along with other new foods that would become commonplace in Europe, back to Spain with him. And the rest is history.
Except the story doesn’t really end there.
The Spanish, it turns out, were not overly impressed with chiles, finding their heat overwhelming. It was the Portuguese, not the Spanish, who transported chile peppers to settlements and colonies in India, West Africa, and around East Asia. The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama had discovered a route from South America around the Cape of Good Hope to India in 1498, creating a direct trading route out of Brazil which carried chile peppers around the world.
Within 30 years of Columbus’ first journey, several varieties of chile pepper plants were being cultivated in Portuguese-controlled Goa, on India’s west coast. Everywhere the Portuguese went, chile peppers followed, and it didn’t take long before the plants ended up in Mozambique. There they were quickly absorbed into the local cuisine, giving us the Swahili word “piri piri” ( meaning “pepper”) to describe one type of chile grown there.
Piri piri chicken: a global phenomenon
Today, piri piri chicken is known as the informal national dish of Mozambique. In stark contrast to what you’ll find in Portugal, Mozambican piri piri sauce is rich—a true sauce, as opposed to an oil.
It typically contains garlic, onion, and vinegar, with some recipes including coconut milk and additional spices. This is the version which made its way to South Africa with Mozambique-born Fernando Duarte. In 1987 Duarte and South-African born Robert Brozin founded Nando’s, a fast-food chain specialized in piri-piri chicken in Johannesburg, South Africa.
As of 2017, there were over 1,000 Nando’s branches in 35 countries. Today, piri piri chicken has become well-known around the world as a classic Portuguese dish, though this characterization leaves out most of the story.