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Cooking the Classics: Mozambican Peri Peri Chicken

Cooking the Classics: Mozambican Peri Peri Chicken

A whole spatchcocked chicken, a chili and spicy sauce meaning "pepper pepper" in Swahili: the Peri Peri chicken, a traditional Mozambique recipe is served.

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Sitting on the beach in Mozambique, the salt breeze in your hair, a cold beer in hand—it doesn’t get much better. But it can, and will, if a waiter is on his way over with a plate full of Peri Peri Chicken, the original recipe from Mozambique. Soon the tang of vinegar, the citrus notes of lemon and lime, the unction of garlic, and the tickle of the African bird’s eye chili (colloquially known as piri piri, pili pili or peri peri) will mingle with the rest of your senses, and you’ll realize that this scar of coastline, which has seen so much political turmoil, is really a slice of heaven.

Piri piri is Swahili for “pepper pepper,” and is the Portuguese Romanization of the term for these peppers that are indigenous to a number of African countries, including Mozambique. In practice, very spicy sauces based on chili peppers can all be referred to as piri piri sauce (spell it any way you like), but the real deal is made from African bird’s eye chilies. You can get fine piri piris in a number of countries, and in Portugal (once Mozambique’s colonial occupier), but Mozambique is a place that calls Peri Peri Chicken its informal national dish, and grows the key chili peppers, so it is safe to say that this is the place to go for it.

This is an opportune time to pause for a moment and talk chili. Every chili plant in the world descends from cultivars from South America, and was therefore imported after the Spanish and Portuguese colonization. Portuguese conquistadors brought chili plants back from South American colonies and they were planted in African colonies (as well as in Asia), where they have thrived for centuries. Spiciness would never have entered the palate of cuisines we now integrally associate it with (Thai, Chinese, Indian) without conquistadors and 16th century oceanic navigation. The reason that chilies are spicy is a chemical they contain called capsaicin—the more of that chemical, the hotter the chili. That chemical has staying power—traces of it were found on ancient Mexican pottery dating to 400 BC, meaning that the ceramics were used to preserve ground chili or paste. Archaeologists have found evidence that chili plants were domesticated at least six-thousand years ago. We refer to chilies as “peppers” because of Christopher Columbus, who likened their taste to Piper, black peppercorn that was known in Europe. Columbus brought the first chili plants to Spain in 1493, after his second voyage to the West Indies. Today, chilies are rated in terms of their spiciness by the Scoville scale (invented in 1912 by American chemist, Wilbur Scoville), which measures the concentration of that magic chemical, capsaicin. Where does African bird’s eye ring in on the Scoville scale? Though you wouldn’t know it from tasting peri peri sauce, it’s actually pretty tame. At 175,000 Scoville heat units, it is milder than habanero or Scotch bonnet chilies—and more than ten times milder than bhut jolokia, the legendary “ghost chili,” with more than 1 million heat units (though the current world record holder is the Carolina Reaper, with around 2 million). Those crazy hot chilies are so hot that they don’t have much taste to them—only heat. Peri peri, like tabasco, cayenne, jalapeno and chipotle, have distinctive, wonderful flavors in addition to heat, and frankly make for much better cooking.

The original recipe of Mozambican Peri Peri Chicken requires a nice, hot charcoal grill and a whole spatchcocked chicken, a preparation that your butcher can sort out for you, removing the backbone so the chicken can lie almost completely flat on the grill, to be cooked even and nicely charred all over. The key to the Mozambican recipe is to prepare a lot of the Peri Peri sauce ahead of time, and to both marinate the chicken in the sauce, and to baste it every few minutes, on both sides, with the sauce as it grills. Then you have a bottle of the sauce on the table, for good measure. You see, this is a sauce that you really can’t overdose on. It is addictive, compelling, and packs a world of flavor and spicy punch. You’ll want to put it on everything. So make a lot, as the chili will make it keep nicely. I found a recipe for Mozambican Peri Peri sauce that brings together white vinegar, fresh lemon and lime juice, olive oil and chopped garlic, with chopped African bird’s eye chilies (more for a sassier sauce, less for milder). Then a bit of salt, a bit of smoked paprika (if you like), and you’re ready to rock. No cooking needed, it’s all “raw,” just shaken vigorously and poured over anything and everything. I learned two things while trying to make my own Mozambican specialty while living in rural Slovenia. First, it isn’t all that easy to find African bird’s eye chilies, but when you do, two general rules: keep the seeds in for more heat, and be very, very careful to wash your hands after handling them. I made the mistake of answering the call of the wild without washing sufficiently prior, and was in a world of pain. The other thing I learned is that spatchcocked chickens will wow your friends and neighbors. It is simply a superior way to cook and present the traditional, not very exciting poultry. But I had no idea what the Slovene word for “spatchcock” was, so I was obliged to do a sort of interpretative dance to demonstrate what I meant. The little old ladies in line behind me at the butcher thought this was hilarious. So note to self: look up key vocabulary before asking your butcher in a foreign language for an exotic preparation. And be careful what you touch after chopping chilies.

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