What makes Portuguese piri piri chili peppers so special?
In the late 1400s and on into the 1500s, pioneering Portuguese explorers and merchants began introducing South America’s chilies to far-flung places. First, to Africa. And then further afield to India, Asia, and China.
This is not a brash, big chili that’s all about macho heat. The pipr piri pepper is far more subtle. It has a rich, smoked undertow of something like char-baked peaches that lingers quietly alongside its long burn. And it’s got plenty of that. Its 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units nestle right in between the cayenne (30,000 to 50,000 SHU) and the habanero (100,000 to 350,000).
This blend of flavors and extra-spiciness is what makes the piri piri pepper such a great culinary pepper. It's a fine basting sauce for meats and vegetables as they cook. It’s grand in a tomato and onion salsa. It also dries well. That means it’s ideal as a foundational powder for a pre-cooking dry rub, as well as being an arrestingly fiery, sprinkled condiment.
It’s all these qualities that make the piri piri pepper especially relished in the bottled chili sauces that are particularly loved in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa.
They also grow wild across Africa – especially when their seeds are dispersed far and wide in the droppings of chili-eating birds. And they are commercially farmed. Piri Piri peppers are a welcome cash-crop for small-holding farmers in Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.