Food & Drink

The Tumultuous, World-Traveling Origins of Piri Piri Sauce

piri-piri sauce
Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

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.

How did this sauce, which has its origins in the former Portuguese empire in Southern Africa end up as a globally popular condiment? In truth, it started out as a global dish. Its history is intimately wrapped up in capitalism, globalization, and imperialism, but it is also a profoundly multicultural condiment. It speaks to the culinary, cultural, and economic crossroads that is Southern Africa.

Piri piri simply means “pepper pepper” in Swahili.

The pepper that piri piri sauce comes from, the Birdseye chili, originally came from the Americas (as do all chili peppers). It was brought to Spain and Portugal in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ voyages. While the Portuguese initially didn’t appreciate the pepper, it found its way down into Brazil via Portuguese traders. After that, another group of Portuguese traders took it with them to East Africa and to Asia, where the peppers became much, much more popular.

Once in East Africa, the sauce got its new name: piri piri simply means “pepper pepper” in Swahili. On the African continent, the original Birdseye chili branched off from its American counterpart and became a cultivar known as the African Birdseye. Meanwhile, Portuguese traders and slavers formalized their control over different parts of Africa, maintaining colonies in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and elsewhere. 

The Portuguese empire actively encouraged settlers from the home country to settle abroad, meaning that in Angola and Mozambique there were large numbers of Portugese settler-colonists. Both the indigenous peoples and the settlers adapted the pepper into their food. Mozambique appears to be where the sauce first appeared, with the indigenous population adopting certain Portuguese traditions such as cooking chicken with lemon.

However, the Portuguese also refused to grant equal rights to the African population in their colonies, and by the 1960s guerrilla war had broken out as Angolans, Mozambicans, and Guineans fought for their freedom.

In 1974, a coup removed Portugal’s long-ruling dictatorship from power. The new government promised independence to the colonies, and the Portugese settler population largely fled from these newly-independent countries. Many of them went back to Portugal and became known as the “retornados.” They brought Angolan, Mozambique, and Guinean food traditions with them back to Portugal, where previously they had been largely unknown. These dishes soon became wildly popular there.

Piri Piri tells a complicated history.

Meanwhile, some retornados went to neighboring South Africa instead of Portugal, and they brought the food with them; Portuguese takeaway became a common thing in big cities like Johannesburg. In 1987, Fernando Duarte and Robert Brozin bought the Chickenland restaurant and renamed it Nando’s. It expanded internationally in the 1990s and became especially popular in Great Britain, contributing to the craze for “Portuguese chicken.” Nando’s has been slower to catch on in the United States, though it has over 40 locations and word-of-mouth has increased awareness of the sauce.

While roasted chicken is one of the most widely recognized uses for piri piri sauce, it’s possibly even tastier when you marinade shrimp in it and then barbecue it. This is one of the preferred ways to eat shrimp in Mozambique. Roasted cashews with piri piri sauce are a popular snack in Southern Africa, and as a condiment, piri piri sauce can liven up just about anything you put it on.

So while you’re pursuing your own piri piri experiments, remember that the sauce tells a complicated history. Some of that history reflects dark moments of humanity, yet it also reflects the fascinating interaction, synthesis, and adaptation of cultures. It’s a reminder that food is a powerful medium for understanding history and human beings. And above all, it’s tasty.

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Zeb Larson is a writer and historian based in Columbus, Ohio. When he's not writing or pondering history, he's probably thinking about food.