At O Teodósio, a noisy restaurant in Portugal's Algarve region, hundreds of diners arrive to eat one dish and one dish only. There are groups of women on hen dos wearing matching t-shirts and families with children barely tall enough to see above the table, all here for the same thing. The plates, adorned with the words ‘O Rei dos Frangos’ – the king of chickens – provide a clue. Soon, the food arrives: crispy batatas fritas or rice, tomato salad with fresh oregano, and of course, the king of dishes, frango Piri-Piri. Otherwise known as Piri-Piri chicken.
When the Piri-Piri chicken (not ‘Peri-Peri’, as it is known in South Africa) arrives, it becomes clear why O Teodósio is such an institution. The meat is oily, tender and lightly charred from the grill. I cover it in Piri-Piri sauce, a mix of fresh chillies and oil served in a small metal jug. With paper tablecloths and limited menu options, the restaurant's set-up is simple, but the dish has been perfected. This is Piri-Piri chicken.
In the UK, Piri-Piri chicken is everywhere. Popularised by Nando's, the South African chain that opened its first UK outlet in 1992 and makes around £722.3 million a year from a “PERi-PERi” chicken menu, the Portuguese spice can now be found in everything from pot pies to Pringles crisp flavours and Marks and Spencer pasta pots. Portuguese fine dining chefs have also embraced the country's love of Piri-Piri – Lisbon-born Nuno Mendes of Chiltern Firehouse has his own recipe for the marinade.
Piri-Piri may be everywhere, but its origins are less clear – muddled in a complicated history of colonisation. The dish couldn’t be described simply as Portuguese, nor does it originate in Nando’s’ founding city, Johannesburg. Most chefs and academics I speak say the sauce came to Portugal after the fall of the fascist Estado Novo government in 1974 that had ruled Portugal since 1933. After decolonisation efforts led by black Africans like Mozambican Eduardo Mondlane, many white Portuguese nationals deployed in the country’s overseas colonies including Angola and Mozambique emigrated back to Portugal. And like most violent colonial rule, its fall resulted in the movement of ingredients taken from the colonies, like the chilli used in the Piri-Piri marinade.
According to Marco Mendes, co-founder of London Portuguese restaurant Casa do Frango and an Algarve native, many of these white retornados – as they are referred to in Portuguese – settled in the Algarve, taking with them the ingredients of the former colonies, like the bird's eye chillies. (Chillies are widely used in various African countries, including some later colonised by the British; you can trace the chillies back to Spanish and Portuguese colonists and missionaries, who brought the plant over from Mexico.) Mendes claims that, in the late 1970s, Portugal's retornados set about incorporating chilli into traditional Algarve recipes, such as roast chicken – frango assado. But instead of roasting the chicken in the Portuguese way, they spatchcocked and grilled it, then served with a mix of dried chilli and oil. And thus, Piri-Piri chicken was allegedly born.
“Piri-Piri is definitely a product of the retornados,” says Mendes. “Frango assado had been here for generations before, but it was a rarity. Back during the times of my father’s youth, circa 1950 to 1965-ish, nobody would conceive of grilling a chicken, nor of killing a chicken so early on. Many Argarvians lived off subsistence farming where the chicken was a source of food – eggs – and thus wouldn’t be killed until the end of its life.”
He continues: “By the end of the 1960s, intensive farming began and chickens became available in much larger quantities, thus, bringing the cost down. This, in turn, led to more frango grelhado [grilled chicken]. This coincided with the end of the colonial war, and the return of Portuguese citizens from Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde.”
This would tally with historical movement of chillis around the world. “Capsicums, a New World food, bypassed most of Europe except Hungary until the last 30 years. Certainly, chillies and peppers were not around much in my 1980s childhood in Yorkshire,” says Iona McCleery, associate professor of medieval history and Portuguese history at the University of Leeds. “They took off in a big way in pre-colonial Africa and India. It is probably via Angola, Mozambique or possibly Brazil that chilli-based sauces with chicken entered Portuguese and then worldwide cuisine. A very large number of Portuguese people lived in Africa at some point in their lives, including many white people over the age of 50.”
Back at O Teodósio, it’s clear how embedded Piri-Piri chicken is in Portuguese food culture. In the summer, the restaurant serves around 2,000 chickens a day and competes alongside the other two frangarias (chicken restaurants) in the area, Ramirez and Ribeirinho, that boast equally popular numbers. All are known as pioneers of the famous dish. I’m here on a Friday lunchtime and the 350 seats in the downstairs dining room are almost full – I have to dodge waiters carrying large plates of chicken from the sweltering kitchen.
“Everyday, people come for our chickens,” Ranato Brazão, a server at the restaurant tells me. “We have been making chicken the same way since the first day – on the grill, just the chicken with salt, nothing more.”
I ask how they make their Piri-Piri sauce. “I cannot say,” he says, smiling. “It is a secret.”
The ingredients in a traditional Piri-Piri marinade are simple: oil and dried or fresh chilli. Some chefs recommend adding garlic or vinegar, or ‘lemon and herb’ if you’re Nando’s, but the core ingredients remain the same. Much of its deliciousness, then, rests on the quality of the chilli itself, as well as a tender chicken that can’t be hidden under sauce.
With this in mind, for the next stop on my Piri-Piri pilgrimage, I head to a chilli farm in the hills outside Faro.
I enter through large black gates, and face rows and rows of chilli plants. A topless man dozes in a plastic chair and a chicken squarks from a nearby pen. Farmer Romeu Santos cultivates more than 180 varieties of chillies here, including the Habanero chilli, the Carolina Reaper chilli and, of course, the malagueta or bird’s eye chilli – used for Piri-Piri dishes.
“These are very easy to grow,” says Santos, as we navigate the rows of bright green plants dotted with red and orange chillies. “They don't have many diseases, not like a tomato. They need about a minimum 21 degrees to grow very well and 12 to 14 hours of sun. In the winter, you cannot grow them.”
Santos agrees that we have the retornados to thank for these chillies: “[Portugal] had colonies in Africa, and they bought it back,” he says. “In 74, the people who came from the colonies ate a lot of chilli. The people who lived in Portugal? Not that much.”
Time to put Santos’ chillies to the test. I’m served freshly barbecued chicken covered in a mixed chilli marinade made from Habenero, Carolina Reaper and malageuta. This time, I slip on plastic gloves to protect myself and dive in hands-first. Cooking the chicken over an open barbecue rather than restaurant grill has given the meat a smoky taste, and the Carolina Reaper chilli adds hot notes. Overlooking the Portuguese hills, my hands dripping in chilli sauce, I feel like a culinary explorer. Except I'm just a Brit who really likes Piri-Piri chicken.
Later that evening, after a long day of Piri-Piri exploration, I visit Marufo’s, a restaurant on the side of a Algarvian motorway. With its blue-and-white sign and laminated menus, polite company would probably label it "humble". But the restaurant is actually one of the area's oldest frangarias, and the inspiration for Mendes' Casa do Frango restaurant in London.
“For me, [Marufo’s is] always doing things the exact way that they wanted to do it,” says Mendes, who came here regularly as a child. “They never marinate it before, they rub it in salt, and choose to have 900-gram chickens. Marufo’s has its own style. There is no other chicken house that I can think of in the Algarve area that does the same.”
At Marufo’s, the chickens cook rotating over burning charcoal – a technique I haven’t seen in any other frangaria. I keep my order simple to match my surroundings: frango Piri-Piri, chips, a tomato and onion salad, and a glass of white wine.
“Marufo’s never cut corners,” Mendes assures me. “The quality of the potatoes, of the salad – it's always of the highest order.”
Luckily, this high praise proves justified. Marufo’s' Piri-Piri chicken is probably the best I’ve ever eaten. The rotisserie-style cooking method allows the fat to run through the chicken as it rotates, keeping the meat moist. I douse it in extra Piri-Piri sauce, chasing that spice kick.
As I wipe up the last of the sauce with a chip, I reflect on my time in the Portuguese sun. I have encountered the freshest chillies and learned about age-old grilling techniques. Will I be able to consume a less traditional version of Piri-Piri chicken from Nando’s, or a soggy supermarket sandwich version in the same way, now knowing how truly delicious the original dish can be? Of course I will. Because just like every other Brit, there is no limit to my Piri-Piri love.
Except maybe a pasta pot.