The fact that a bowl of chili shares its name with the pepper that lends the stew its flavor can get a little confusing. Similarly, peri-peri, or piri-piri in Portuguese, is the name for both a variety of bird’s eye chili pepper as well as a sauce made with that same pepper. The delicious sauce is most known for gracing grilled chicken, so peri-peri, in turn, is synonymous with that chicken dish, too. Even though all of this requires some clarification, it’s a flavor profile that deserves our understanding.
What is peri-peri?
The peri-peri pepper was originally cultivated by Portuguese settlers in the area that is now Mozambique, using peppers from the Caribbean prized by Portuguese explorers. The sauce is made by combining these peppers with garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, and paprika; it’s a fusion food claimed by Portuguese-Angolans and Portuguese-Mozambicans alike, but the fact that it’s irresistible is not up for debate.
Nando’s, a South African restaurant chain with more than 1,200 locations worldwide, specializes in peri-peri chicken and has helped popularize the dish globally. It takes a lot of confidence for a chain restaurant to focus almost solely on one specialty, but Nando’s earns that confidence. Its offerings are almost all some form of peri-peri chicken (along with a few vegetarian-friendly dishes and an array of sides), and its success hinges on flame-grilled poultry. The restaurant’s rooster logo is a nod to its Portuguese influences.
If you’ve ever been to Nando’s, you already know that the sauce packs a lot of punch, especially on a char-grilled piece of meat. The chain also sells its peri-peri sauce in grocery stores, but other brands are likely available in your local condiment aisle, too. In terms of heat, peri-peri stands at a respectable medium if you have it in small doses at a time. Nando’s offers a whole range of heat levels to match people’s preferences, but I’ve found that most standard offerings sit around medium to medium-high spiciness.
Because of its popularity, peri-peri chicken has found its way onto other menus worldwide, and if you can’t find it at a local spot, you’ll probably be able to locate it at chain restaurants. Boston Market is currently offering a limited-time-only rotisserie chicken doused in peri-peri sauce, and if Boston Market is offering something, that’s a good indication the dish has hit the mainstream here in the States. As the American food consciousness continues to awaken to the wonders of peri-peri, we’ll join the rest of the world in understanding just how great it is.