For many Australians, the spicy sauce known as peri-peri entered our psyches – and palettes – thanks to a certain colourful chicken chain, but the origins of this chilli-licious recipe extend far beyond a fast food store, taking us to Portugal and the heart of Africa.
Siobhan Hegarty

10 Apr 2017 - 6:49 PM  UPDATED 23 May 2019 - 2:25 PM

Before embarking on this spice route, let’s acknowledge the giant rooster in the room. Yes, I’m talking about Nando’s, the “Portuguese” chain that’s been building its Australian empire since 1990. With silly adverts and addictive chips, Nando’s – named after co-founder Fernando Duarte – sold us peri-peri as both an idea and a neatly packaged bottle. 

But as you might’ve guessed, Nando’s didn’t invent peri-peri.

Variations of the sauce have been around since the 15th century when the Portuguese settlers in Africa came across the ingredient – an African bird’s eye chilli – and made a marinade with garlic, red wine vinegar, paprika and other European imports. Five hundred years on, the exact origins of this recipe are still debated as both Portuguese-Angolans and Portuguese-Mozambicans claim to have created the special mix. Regardless, the recipe remains a celebration of the cultural legacy and culinary fusions of the region.  

A note on nomenclature

The chilli and the sauce itself is known as ‘piri-piri’ in Portuguese. It takes its name from Swahili – ‘piri-piri’ means ‘pepper-pepper’ – and has morphed into several iterations, including ‘pili-pili’ and ‘peri-peri’. The latter translation is widely used in South Africa, home to countless chicken shops and the first-ever Nando’s.

Basting rights

For South African-born chef Duncan Welgemoed, peri-peri chicken is not only a staple dish, it’s a national icon.

“Peri-peri chicken is South African in my opinion,” he contests. “It has its cultural resonance out of Portugal and Mozambique, but it’s done to the extreme by South Africans. All the best Mozambican chefs move to Johannesburg and showcase peri themselves, but it’s also so popular because of the large number of Portuguese living there.”

At his Adelaide restaurant Africola, Welgemoed prepares peri-peri that’s “about as good as you can get at a restaurant”, but concedes that the most iconic peri-peri chicken comes from the oldest pub in South Africa – The Radium Beerhall in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. 

So how does Portuguese chicken fit into the equation?

Well first up, it’s piri-piri not peri-peri, and second, in Portugal you’re less likely to find a rich, spicy sauce than a simple chilli oil. 

Chef and co-owner of Sydney’s Bibo Wine Bar Jose Silva says spiciness isn’t part of the Portuguese constitution. 

“I grew up eating a little bit, but as Portuguese we don’t use a lot of chilli in cooking,” he explains. “Everyone thinks piri-piri is all we do, but that’s not true.”

Silva says it was during the Mozambican and Angolan wars of independence that many Portuguese returned to their homeland, bringing a penchant for charcoal cooking and, of course, piri-piri (the chilli) itself.

“I came to Australia [from Portugal] when was 12 and every time I go back I’ll try charcoal chicken places,” he says. “Normally it’s served with chilli-infused oil, not like what you’d get at Nando’s or Oporto.”

Hot stuff

Portuguese diners mightn’t appreciate great heat, but the African bird’s eye chilli does pack a punch. Growing natively across the lower two-thirds of the continent, it’s commonly cultivated in and around Zambia and Zimbabwe and, depending on the crop, can register up to 175,000 heat units on the Scoville scale. If you’re after some comparison, that makes piri-piri hotter than the pint-sized, yet powerful Thai chilli (50,000-100,000 units) and less fiery than the infamous ‘ghost chilli’ (bhut jolokia) which registers a startling one million units.

According to Welgemoed, the chillies are pleasurable to eat because of their savoury, yet spicy profile, adding “they won’t blow your head off.”

To his peri-peri sauce the chef adds acidity, usually in the form of red wine vinegar or lemon, along with a few fragrant ingredients such as garlic or bay leaves.

“I think mixing chicken with these flavours opens [peri-peri up] to the flavour profiles of all demographics and regions – be it in Asia, America or England,” he says.

So whether you call it peri-peri or piri-piri – or credit any number of the countries visited above – the popularity of this chilli sauce across continents and centuries proves it’s a keeper. 

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Perfect peri peri
Peri peri chicken with boom chakalaka

Chakalaka is a South African vegetable relish, usually spicy, that's traditionally served with braised meat, pap and curries.

Piri-piri chicken

“This is the most succulent chicken you’ll ever cook on a barbecue. The brining to add flavour is clever – who could resist a bath in beer, wine and brandy! This was cooked on a revolving barbecue cage, which helps to keep the moisture inside the golden chicken. The piri-piri is a quick blend and then the sauce is cooked on the coals, and the pilaf rice is a simple easy accompaniment. Jose Silva worked as head chef at Guillaume at Bennelong for many years before taking over a Portuguese bakery, Sweet Belem, and opening a relaxed eatery. His uncle in Portugal gave him the secrets of his marinade.” Maeve O’Meara, Food Safari Fire

Charcoal chicken with piri piri oil (frango assado con piri piri)

Marinate the chicken overnight. The oil is best made 2 days ahead to allow the flavours to develop. Refrigerate oil for up to 1 week covered or in a sterilised jar.