What Is Peri Peri (or Piri Piri) Sauce?
The Portuguese Empire was one of the longest-living empires in world history. The small Atlantic nation first captured the African city of Ceuta in 1415 and continued to hold Macau in China until 1999. At one point, the Portuguese had territories in North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Like many former colonial powers, Portugal’s culture was influenced by the peoples and cultures they ruled over.
For Portugal, one of those things is peri peri sauce. It is a spicy topping of African origin, an artifact of Portuguese colonization of Africa. Today we’ll explore the sauce’s history and better understand: what is peri peri sauce?
First, let’s understand why there seems to be disagreement as to the “proper” spelling of peri peri. This can partly be attributed to the different character systems used by the native languages from which the word stems. Prior to German colonization of south-eastern Africa, Swahili utilized an Arabic alphabet system. During the late 19th century, German colonists converted Swahili into the Latin alphabet system, the one that is used by most common Western Languages today: English, Spanish, French, etc.
It was likely that this conversion from Arabic characters to Latin characters is what caused the confusion between different names. In Swahili, pilipili loosely means “pepper.” In the country of Malawi, the same pepper goes by peri peri. Typically, these are the spellings that we see today to reference the pepper, and sauces made from it: piri piri, peri peri, piripiri, and periperi. In all, the word(s) mean(s) the same thing, but the translation in and out of several languages and alphabets makes the exact spelling difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain.
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Peri Peri Origins
Now that we know where the word peri peri comes from, let’s discuss where the sauce itself comes from. All variations of true peri peri come from the variety of pepper Capsicum frutescens. This is a specific species within the genus Capsicum that contains all peppers that are commonly referred to as “chili peppers.”
- frutescens grows wild in many different countries in Africa. It is believed that Portuguese explorers discovered the pepper in Mozambique and brought it back to grow in Portugal. The actual peri peri sauce that is common in Portugal is of Portuguese origin, though. The same kind of sauce is typically not found in Africa.
What exactly goes into peri peri sauce? That depends on who you ask. Typically, the sauce is spicy, earthly, and slightly sweet. The spice obviously comes from the pepper itself, the earthly notes typically are derived from oil and bay leaves, and the sweet flavors originate from lemon juice and peels. Although these are fairly standard ingredients that are found in most recipes, the full ingredient list will vary from region to region. Additional ingredients include onion, garlic, pepper, salt, pimiento, paprika, basil, tarragon, and oregano.
Peri Peri Dishes
This delectable sauce can compliment, or even be the main attraction, in many different types of dishes.
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The most common way to see peri peri served is with chicken. The concept originated in Portugal but has since spread to many corners of the globe due to the popularity of the fast-food chain Nandos. The restaurant started in South Africa and specializes in serving Portuguese styled peri peri chicken. They have over 1,000 restaurants in 35 countries on 5 continents, including the United States. If you don’t happen to live close to one of their locations, making chicken peri peri isn’t too complicated in your own home.
Shrimp peri peri is an interesting example of a recipe coming full circle. The peppers to make peri peri sauce likely originated in Mozambique. These peppers made their way to Portugal, whereby they were made into a sauce. Now, that same sauce is a staple of many seaside towns in Mozambique when cooking shrimp. The dish tends to be less smoky in flavor when prepared with shrimp compared to chicken, but both are absolutely worth trying.
The great thing about this sauce is that it is just that: a sauce! While it traditionally is cooked and combined with a protein of some kind, it can complement all sorts of dishes for those inclined to spice. It pairs well as a mix-in to burritos and tacos, it can give a spicy kick to mild salsas, and it can be combined with veggies and rice to help give flavor to a healthy dish. Really, anything that you may normally put hot sauce on will take peri peri well.
The recipe that truly takes the cake, however, is peri peri with canned fish like sardines or tuna. The spice from the peri peri mixed with the saltiness of the fish is simply a match made in heaven.
Give it a taste and let us know what you think!
Article written by Patrick O'Hare on August 18, 2020.
[Cover photo by Elle Hughes on Unsplash]