Piri Piri Chillies: a central ingredient in South African food

Piri Piri Chilies

Early settlers to South Africa brought ingredients and culinary traditions that have taken root and come to form the diverse cuisine of the Rainbow Nation.

Beyond the winelands of Franschhoek, which were planted by French Huguenot refugees in the late 1600s, there is the Cape Malay community, originally from Indonesia and drafted in by the Dutch to work.

They brought Muslim culture with them, as well as herbs and spices that now pepper South African cuisine. One of the most piquant ingredients in this rich mix of flavours comes from chilli peppers.

Chillies are thought to have originated in the Amazon Basin in South America, where they were known as “achu” by the Incas or “chilli” by the Aztecs.

They are part of the capsicum family, and their heat lies in Capsaicin, a chemical in the fruit that is an irritant and that brings on a sensation of burning.

Portuguese and Spanish explorers first brought the plant to Europe and West Africa, and from there it spread along trade routes into Southern Africa.

Meanwhile, chillies had also reached India, and when labourers were brought to South Africa from Asia they too carried chillies with them.

Today, the piri piri – Swahili for “pepper pepper” (so hot they named it twice) – is a central ingredient in South African cuisine. As the famous writer Laurens van der Post wrote in his book First Catch Your Eland (1977): “The man who has become hooked on piri piri always hungers for it, because the person who has once acquired a taste in the tropics for Indian curries, Oriental spices or African chillies becomes an addict...”

On the Scoville scale, devised in 1912 by US pharmacist Wilbur Scoville to measure the spicy heat of peppers in heat units (SHU), the piri piri, also known as African bird’s eye chilli, is one of the more fiery varieties.

  • At the bottom of the scale lies the bell pepper with a score of 0 SHU;
  • Tabasco, meanwhile, sits in the middle with 30,000-50,000 SHU.
  • Piri piri scores around 50,000–175,000 SHU.

It’s hot, but there are much hotter chillies out there: the hottest recorded is the Carolina Reaper with a mind-blowing heat level of 1,569,300 SHU.

Piri piri is used in traditional South African dishes such as primary use is as a marinade for prawns or chicken.

The chillies are chopped or crushed with salt, lemon juice or vinegar, garlic, onion and vegetable oil to produce a thick sauce.

The prawns or chicken pieces are then liberally coated and left to marinate for several hours (ideally overnight), before being cooked.

South Africa has a strong barbeque tradition. For members of all communities, the braai (shisa nyama in Zulu) is more than just a barbeque: it holds a special place in country’s culture.

To mark key events, South Africans light fires, congregate outdoors and cook up a feast of braaivleis (Afrikaans for “grilled meat”).

Usually the men do the cooking while the women prepare the sides, which often include pap, a kind of corn or maize porridge akin to polenta.

Piri piri marinated chicken and prawns are often found in these grill-ups, the punchy flavours of the chilli-drenched meat sitting happily with a cold beer. And if the heat is still not enough, there’s always piri piri sauce on the side, for dipping and added kick.

So important is the braai to the idea of South Africa’s national identity, that a National Braai Day initiative was started in 2005.

The idea was to encourage South Africans to unite around a fire to “share our heritage and wave our flag” on the country’s 24 September Heritage Day.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was even appointed patron of the movement, describing it as a way of unifying the nation.

A piri piri barbeque feast is surely something everyone can get behind.

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