My first time having piri piri sauce went down the way that most people outside of Southern Africa and Portugal discover it: at a franchise of the restaurant chain Nando’s in College Park, Maryland. I was doing research for my dissertation on the anti-apartheid movement in the United States and stumbled into one after a day spent in an archive. While discovering any kind of food in a chain restaurant is usually a letdown, the sauce really grabbed my attention. It brought plenty of fire, but also had a kind of earthiness to it, and a hint of sweetness: it was everything I like in a hot sauce.
Naturally, when I went to South Africa the following year, I had chicken in piri piri sauce about as many times as I could, and came back with a bunch of different sauces. If you’re based in North America, Nando’s, Rhino, and Macarico are probably the biggest distributors, though smaller sauce companies are starting to make their own as well.
What is piri piri sauce, also sometimes referred to as peri-peri or pili-pili? The most commonly found ingredients are chili peppers, lemon, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, and oil, but it’s not uncommon to see citrus peel, paprika, tarragon, oregano, or other ingredients. The chief pepper is the African Birdseye, a hot-but-not-nuclear pepper that is a cultivar of Capsicum Frutescens and usually produces about 150,000 units on the Scoville scale. In addition to its namesake pepper, other chilies such as malaguetas are frequently used to make the sauce. The heat can be highly variable, ranging from relatively mild with a lot of flavor to an intense, scorching sauce.
Today, piri piri sauce is showing up all over the place. In Britain, Australia, and Canada, it’s become popular because of the Nando’s franchise and the ensuing popularity of “Portuguese chicken,” which often is just chicken with piri piri sauce on it. In the span of a few decades, frango assado com piri piri has become one of the most popular dishes in Portugal. It’s just as popular in Southern Africa, where piri piri sauce is a beloved condiment in Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa. Reportedly, Nelson Mandela loved it after he was released from prison in 1990.