Piri-piri chicken is, like a lot of Portuguese cuisine, a one of Portugal’s best dishes. Every restaurant and Portuguese mother has their own secret ingredient that makes their frango piri-piri the best, but overall it is a fairly simple dish.
The chicken is spatchcocked and marinaded (or not) in a sauce that normally contains ingredients like garlic, olive oil, salt, lemon juice, and of course piri-piri chilies, along with whatever those other secret ingredients are. Although you can cook frango piri-piri in an oven, cooking it over a coal BBQ really adds more flavour.
The chicken is normally served with a simple salad along with either rice or chips (fries) or both: in the north of Portugal, rice is much more common, whereas in the Algarve and South of Portugal, chips are the side of choice.
It’s cheap, it’s delicious, and it’s one of the best things that you can eat in Portugal.
I’ve eaten piri-piri chicken (frango assado) throughout Portugal. Although you can find it at churrasqueiras throughout the country, the best piri-piri chicken comes from the Algarve. Not necessarily Guia where it originates from. I’ve eaten at most of the restaurants there, but found other places in the Algarve to have as good, if not better, piri-piri chicken.
The origins of piri-piri chicken
The chillies used in piri-piri chicken aren’t native to Portugal: they originated in South America. But it wasn’t as simple as the Portuguese bringing the chillies back from South America to Portugal.
They may well have brought chillies back, and probably did, but the dish has its origins in the African colonies of Mozambique and Angola rather than Continental Portugal: the Portuguese brought chilli seeds from South America to Africa, planted them, and, gradually, the people there began mixing the chillies with other ingredients like garlic and lemon juice to create a sauce. The dish evolved and evolved until it became the popular piri-piri chicken dish we know today.
It was particularly popular with the Portuguese who were living in or stationed in Angola in the middle of the last century. When the Portuguese began returning to Portugal from Angola in the 60s and 70s, they began trying to get piri-piri back home.
José Carlos Ramires, a shoemaker based in Guia in the Algarve, had opened a restaurant in but initially didn’t serve piri-piri chicken. As more and more people returning from Angola began to ask for it, however, he soon began to serve it, cooking his first piri-piri chicken in 1964. It wasn’t long before other restaurants in Guia began to serve piri-piri as well, and soon Guia became the piri-piri capital of Portugal.
Today, the small town in the Albufeira concelho, is home to even more churrasqueiras. It also hosts an annual piri-piri chicken festival (Festa do Frango da Guia), which normally takes place every year in early August.
The restaurant (Ramires) still exists today, and is one of the most popular restaurants in Guia. Some say it’s still the best churrasqueira in Guia, while others people have their own favourite spot which may not even be in Guia at all. It’s usually somewhere on the Algarve, though: although people will debate which churrasqueira is the best, they will almost all agree that if you want good piri-piri chicken you have to come to the Algarve.
In recent years, piri-piri chicken has become extremely popular around the world. That’s more due to the South Africans than the Portuguese, though.
Nando’s has quickly become one of the largest restaurant chains in South Africa, the UK, Australia, and now the United States as well. Is it Portuguese? Not quite. Although Nando’s “peri-peri chicken” is very similar to what you’ll find in Portugal, it’s not really the same. Which is better? Portuguese piri-piri chicken obviously!
The key components of piri piri chicken
To make frango piri-piri, there are couple of things that you need.
Any chicken won’t do, although if you’re not in Portugal you will obviously be limited to what’s available in your supermarket or butcher.
In Portugal, size matters. The chickens that are used for grilling are killed at 25 days rather than 45 and should weigh no more than 700 grams. A good chef, or someone that works in a churrasqueira, should be able to tell whether it’s the right size just by holding it in their hands.
The bird’s diet matters as well. Ideally it should be free range, and also it should be raised on a good diet of cereals and vegetables.
The charcoal grill
You can make piri-piri chicken in an oven, and it still tastes delicious, but it does taste a lot better if it’s cooked over a charcoal or wood fire.
As with every other dish, the secret is in the sauce. Every restaurant has a secret ingredient or two which is key to their sauce. Sometimes it’s down to adding something, but often it’s a case of increasing of one ingredient like garlic or chili. As simple as that sounds, it can be enough to make one churrasqueira the favourite in a town.
You can also buy piri-piri sauce from your local Portuguese supermarket, if you’re cooking at home and are in a rush. Traditionally, this is a cheap and simple bottle of piri-piri sauce, but more and more companies are now offering more luxurious and artisan recipes that include other herbs and spices, as well as fruits and other ingredients.
The next question is when you add the sauce. Some places marinade overnight, some for a few hours before, while some actually cook the chicken first and then baste it or dip it in the sauce right at the end.
Where to try eat frango piri-piri
The following are just a few places to try frango piri-piri in Portugal. You’ll also find it on most menus in the Algarve (sometimes called frango piri-piri, frango assado com piri-piri, frango no churrasco, or frango na brasa) but, to really experience proper piri-piri, it’s worth going to a restaurant that specialises in it.
The following are just a few popular places.