A Portuguese dish with its roots in Angola and Mozambique, popularised in the UK by a Johannesburg-based restaurant chain, piri piri chicken may have a complicated past, but its present is crystal clear: we absolutely love it. That “cheeky” chain, Nando’s, has been described as “one of the most successful cults in Britain”, having carved itself an unlikely, but undeniable niche in our national identity. In perhaps the ultimate sign of its success, piri piri has now been added to the list of dubious attractions at my local Texan fried chicken shop, too. It seems we just can’t get enough spicy grilled poultry.
Popularity, however, breeds contempt – and, even leaving aside questions of animal welfare, not all this piri piri has the vim and vinegar of the salty, sizzling stuff shoved through the hatch of your average Lisbon kiosk or churrascaria. Fortunately, however, if you can grill chicken, you can make much better piri piri chicken at home.
The name piri piri comes from the variety of chilli used, a cultivar of Capsicum frutescens, which also includes tabasco chillies, probably taken by the Portuguese from their colonies in South America to those in Africa and, from there, to Europe. In Swahili, pili pili apparently means pepper-pepper – prompting the witticism “the chilli so hot they named it twice” – and it lives up to that reputation. The fruit registers 50,000-175,000 Scoville units (a measurement based on the amount of sugared water necessary to neutralise its fire), qualifying it for the “very hot” category in Kay Plunkett-Hogge’s book Heat, one below pure capsaicin (16m units, and “explosive!”).
The problem I have is that, despite dragging the dog around London’s various Portuguese neighbourhoods, I’m unable to find fresh piri piri chillies, or even the dried kind: the one fishmonger said to occasionally stock them, according to the lovely assistant in the Tastes of Portugal cafe in Lambeth, is closed for holidays. The African strongholds of Rye Lane in Peckham and Ridley Road market in Hackney also fail to deliver, though the latter does yield some that I’m unable to confirm as African bird’s eye – the stallholder is smiley but mute. South Devon Chilli Farm, which sells them online for a few months a year, doesn’t have them in stock at the time of writing, either. This problem has been clearly anticipated by the writers of the recipes I try. Only Rebecca Seal’s Lisbon calls for fresh piri piri chillies. Rick Stein specifies dried in his Long Weekends book, suggesting red jalapeño and bird’s eye as a backup. Catherine Phipps recommends scotch bonnets in Chicken, Nuno Mendes a long red chilli in Lisboeta, and Diana Henry simply red chillies in A Bird in the Hand.
However, piri piri, while hot, aren’t particularly distinctively flavoured if the dried fruit I buy are anything to go by, so Plunkett-Hogge’s recommendation to substitute the similarly pungent (50,000-100,000 Scoville), easily available Thai bird’s eye chillies seems a good one. That said, given the heat is the important thing, so long as you stick with ripe red chillies, you can use just about any piquant variety you like.Add them to taste, as Seal suggests, bearing in mind that “the fieriness of the paste will be weakened by cooking, so go for slightly more heat than you think you like”.
Seal’s recipe also includes red bell peppers, presumably as much for their colour as flavour, giving her piri piri a pleasing sweetness that goes down well with testers as a sauce, yet lacks the fire of some of the other versions. Again, that’s not necessarily a problem: according to Taste of Lisboa food tours: “We don’t even like spicy food that much. Yes, there is the possibility to order roasted chicken with spicy sauce, but most of the people don’t order the sauce and prefer to accompany chicken with fries.” In the UK, of course, we like both.
Even more popular than the red pepper, however, is the brick-red paprika used by Tessa Kiros in her book Piri Piri Starfish, and by Stein and Phipps, whose choice of sweet and smoky is particularly useful if climatic conditions preclude barbecuing the meat. Those deploying a milder variety of fresh chilli might prefer to go for the hot sort instead: it’s up to you.
This is a spicy, rather than a herby dish. My testers don’t think the oregano used by Henry, Phipps, Stein and Kiros adds that much once the heat is ramped up, and the same goes for Kiros’s bay leaf. Both would get lost in my fiery sauce, but may prove more welcome in milder versions.
Similarly, the bold flavour of garlic is preferred to Phipps’s milder sauteed onion, but then, her sauce – based on the African Volcano range by South African chef Grant Hawthorne – is quite a different beast from the rest: a smoky, tomatoey, almost chutney-like affair that ends with a real kick. Hawthorne tells me that his recipe is based on one from Beira in Mozambique, and helpfully adds that west African versions use cumin and ginger, while ex-Portuguese colonies often include vinho verde as well as citrus for a sharper flavour. The testers absolutely love it as an accompaniment, but we all find its complex flavours get a bit lost in the cooking process, while simpler, sour and spicy marinades such as Mendes’s still shine as brightly as ever.
The acid test
Sharpness is one of the key qualities in most piri piri sauces, usually added in the form of lemon juice or wine vinegar – I prefer the cleaner flavour of the former, but either will do, and you may also like to add a little balancing sweetness, in the guise of sugar, as Henry, Phipps and Stein do, or port, as Kiros does. The latter feels pleasingly apt to me, but only if you have a bottle open: it doesn’t make enough difference to merit a special purchase – unless you’re looking for an excuse, of course.
Mendes adds a whole lemon to his piri piri paste, which gives it a very distinctive, though not unpleasant, bitter zestiness that completely overpowers the chilli. Interesting, but not as universally popular as the crisps he suggests as an accompaniment.
In Portugal, whole spatchcocked chickens are popular, but they tend to be smaller than can easily be found in the UK (Kiros calls for 800g birds; the closest I can find is 1.2kg). As meatier breasts tend to dry out over a high heat, I’m going to go with Seal’s whole legs instead – although Stein’s large thighs are as delicious as you might have imagined in your most secret dreams, and the wings, which I don’t try, would be perfect for a party situation.
Seal and Phipps marinate their chicken overnight in piri piri, Mendes leaves it for two hours, Kiros adds the sauce to the chicken for the last few minutes of cooking, and Stein doesn’t slosh it on until the meat is off the heat entirely. Stein’s method has the benefit of keeping the skin super-crisp, but it lacks the charred chilli flavour of the others. Kiros’s method feels like the best compromise – long enough for a spot of charring, short enough to keep the flavours fresh.
Like Stein, she marinates the meat in lemon juice, garlic and salt first, as would be traditional in a Portuguese churrascaria, I believe. This gives it an addictive flavour without any risk of burning on the grill, a few flecks of garlic aside. However, Harold McGee has written that there’s no point in leaving it in this acidic bath for more than two hours, telling the LA Times that: “Any longer than that, and the meat will have a kind of mealy stuff on the surface. The structured meat tissue becomes tiny protein particles – fine for a paté, but not what you want in a steak” – or, indeed, grilled chicken.
Mendes and Kiros both use large amounts of butter in their sauce, giving the finished dish a richness, but also tempering the heat. This prompts me to use olive oil instead, though you may prefer to go down their route. Some recipes also include whisky or brandy for preservation purposes, but unless you’re planning on keeping the sauce for a while, it doesn’t add much to the flavour.
The cooking method
The barbecue is ideal for this purpose, but you can also get excellent results in the oven, as Stein recommends. I prefer to finish them off in a hot griddle pan rather than under the grill, which I find fiddly and more work to clean up.
Perfect piri piri chicken
Serve with chips and lemon wedges if you want to go Portuguese, though it’s also very nice indeed with rice to soak up the extra sauce. Or, in Mendes’s style, freshly fried potato crisps – I have it on reliable authority that a bag from the supermarket also does the trick.
Prep 15 min, plus marinating
Cook 40 min
4 chicken legs (thigh and drumstick), skin on, bone in
For the marinade
Juice of ½ lemon
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 tsp flaky salt
For the piri piri sauce
2-4 red African or Thai bird’s eye chillies, to taste
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled
Juice of 1 lemon
1½ tsp flaky salt
2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
50ml olive oil
1 tbsp port or 1 tsp brown sugar (optional)