Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz.
For better or worse, lockdown has given us all space to reflect. Some have used this time to reconsider their relationships, with divorce inquiries 40 percent higher than they were last year. Others are re-evaluating their working lives, as 39 percent of adults report considering a career change. Many have written novels, discovered running and baked a lot of sourdough bread. And me? I’ve spent quarantine pondering what is potentially the greatest cover-up of our time. Forget the moon landings and the reptilian monarchy, I am questioning the chaotic and misleading heat scale of Nando’s Peri Peri Sauces, and I’m in fucking deep. Fashion yourself a tinfoil hat, because here is my theory: Nando’s Medium Peri Peri Sauce is in fact hotter than Nando’s Hot Peri Peri Sauce.
Nando’s occupies an almost mythical position in British society, and with great power comes a great many secrets. Who could forget the hysteria surrounding the ketchup controversy of 2016, when a staff member was caught decanting tomato sauce from a large, unbranded container into a smaller Heinz bottle? How about the elusive Black Card – does it really exist, and how do you join Stormzy and David Beckham in their unlimited Nando’s nirvana? But these mysteries pale in comparison to the theory I have quietly held for years, which calls into question the very foundation of Nando’s menu: the right to choose your own level of spice. The Peri Peri Sauce conspiracy can be traced back to a post on Yahoo Answers ten years ago. A poster named “Andy” asked: “Does anyone else think Nando's medium sauce is hotter than the extra hot?… Normally I hardly notice any effect from the ‘extra hot’ sauce, but the medium actually seemed to have a decent kick to it… Anyone else noticed this, or have they just been mucking around with the bottles? :P”. Only one brave and anonymous soul spoke up, replying: “I totally do, too”.
Buoyed by this validation of my theory, albeit on a decades-old website once described as an “insanity chamber”, I decide to put it through further testing. First, I upload a photo of the Hot and Medium Peri Peri Sauces to my Instagram Story, inviting my 430 followers to vote on which is hottest. A third of my mates vote “Medium, life is a lie”, and people I haven’t talked to for years DM me to agree, giddy that someone else has noticed too. Clearly, there is something in this. Next, I do a blind taste test, dunking a Quorn nugget into each sauce to see which has more heat. The answer, as I suspected, is Medium. Don’t get me wrong, Hot does have a kick, but the heat is localised and has an almost citrusy flavour that passes quickly. Medium, on the other hand, floods my mouth with heat and the distinctive taste of chilli, making a single tiny pearl of sweat form on my brow. The delicious pain lingers for minutes after.
Since Andy’s Yahoo Answers post, others have taken to the internet to expose the Peri Peri conspiracy. Back in 2018, Beks tweeted: “Nando’s medium sauce is 100% hotter than the hot dont care what anyone says oh god”. I manage to track her down and ask what she remembers about this awakening. “I was in Hamilton Nando’s and I had a Medium wrap with Peri chips, and used the Medium sauce,” she says. “I was surprised it was so hot, so I grabbed the Hot and tried them separately and Medium was still hotter.” She has not been quiet about her discovery. “My friends all agree – I have told them to all try it and they think the same,” she says. I need to speak to someone on the inside, so I ask a friend who once worked at a Glasgow branch of Nando’s whether she is aware of any shady goings-on with the Peri Peri sauces. “It’s important to distinguish between the dipping sauces and the marinades, because the dipping sauces are definitely all spicier,” she says. “As for the Medium being hotter than the Hot – I’m a pussy, so I don’t really know.” So far, so inconclusive, although she does offer up the following insight: “The Extra Hot Marinade is exactly the same as the Hot marinade, it’s just basted twice.”It’s time to face the Big Chicken itself: the Nando’s press office. The team kindly humours my demand to know the truth about which is really hotter, the Medium or Hot Peri Peri Sauce, but they never let the mask slip. A spokesperson tells me: “In exceptional cases, there might be a slight overlap in heat between the two products, with them tasting quite similar – for instance, when Medium is at its highest level of Scoville Heat Unit and Hot is at its lowest. This is due to the nature of variations in natural ingredients, resulting in slight differences between batches. There is also always a human factor in terms of heat perception, as we all perceive heat and flavours slightly different. What may be mild to one person will be super-hot to the next.”
Alright, keep your secrets, I think. Although the subjectivity of taste is a good point, can it really account for so many people finding Medium hotter every time they eat Nando’s sauces? If I’m dredged from the bottom of the Thames with a whole chicken stuffed down my throat and little flags that say “Lemon and Herb” stuck into each eye socket, you’ll know who came after me.
But if – if – Medium sauce truthers are correct, then we are left with another, even more puzzling question. Why would Nando’s label its sauces like this? It runs counter to every other streamlined and tightly controlled aspect of the Nando’s experience, from the drinks refills to the counter ordering system and precisely portioned chips. If you want my own personal theory, mulled over during weeks of isolation, then the sauce switch is a move by Nando’s to cater to its demographic. Hear me out: what if Nando’s has made Medium hotter than Hot, so that lads can look hard by ordering what appears to be the spicier sauce, safe in the knowledge that their masculinity and tastebuds won’t be harmed? They’ll keep coming back, knowing that the restaurant offers a protected haven for their manliness, allowing them to show off by drenching their chips in Hot Sauce, while real spice aficionados are on the truly hard stuff: Medium. This is backed up by another one of the ex-griller’s claims. “You’d be amazed how many guys ask for Lemon and Herb, but ask for a Hot flag because they’re on a date and they don't want to look like a wimp in front of the girl they’re with,” she says. We may never know the truth about Nando’s Peri Peri sauces. Maybe our experience of the restaurant will forever be confused by hangovers and the sugar rush of unlimited fizzy drinks. Maybe the taste for heat all depends on genetics, or how the stars are aligned that day. Maybe I should leave my flat more, now that I’m not legally bound to stay at home. But whatever the case, the confusing case of Nando’s Peri Peri sauces has given me something to discuss, debate and obsess over during lockdown – and what could be more valuable than that? Maybe the only truths in the Great Nando’s Conspiracy Theory are the friends I made along the way.@AnnaVictoriaSam