Small, potently hot, and rather elusive…
The peri-peri pepper, a.k.a. the African bird’s eye chili. That would be African, right? Yep, but in a roundabout sort of way. Its metaphorical roots stretch back to South America – the world’s original source of all the chilies that ever followed. Africa’s chili may have been an adopted child, but over several centuries it developed its own independent identity. Here’s how it became a uniquely African chili.
Peri-peri fast facts
|Scoville heat units (SHU)||50,000 – 100,000|
|Median heat (SHU)||75,000|
|Jalapeño reference point||6 to 40 times hotter|
|Size||Approximately 1 inch long|
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.
The origins of today’s wide variety of chilies and their globe-trotting travel during a phenomenon called ‘The Columbian Exchange’ (named after the intrepid Christopher) make a great story. But that’s for another day. And before we get to that spicily grilled chicken recipe, let’s first appreciate the story behind this African monikered chili.
It almost certainly reached its African home about 520 years ago, courtesy of the world-exploring Portuguese. Point and date of entry: Mozambique, 1498 – 1500.
The chili comes to Africa
Portugal’s long-lasting presence in Mozambique began when Vasco da Gama was the first nautical European to reach the country in 1498. This was on the outward leg of his voyage to find a sea-route from Portugal to India.
Within a few years, Portugal’s Mozambican footholds changed from being provisioning stopovers for explorers. They became colonizing beachheads for growing numbers of Europeans following da Gama’s alluring trade route into Africa and the Indian Ocean.
When da Gama arrived, the coastal areas of south-eastern Africa had long been populated by the Swahili people. From about six hundred years before da Gama, they had developed as seafaring, far-navigating Indian Ocean traders. By 1498, Swahili round-trip sea voyages of approximately 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) from Africa to India were routine.
The Swahili had been strongly influenced through their oceanic trade by Arabic, Indian, Persian, and probably Chinese cultures. They were a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, Muslim people living in an interconnected, sea-going ‘eastern world’ whose mercantile routes were unknown to exploratory, Europeans. But chilies were also unknown to the Swahili.
Africa’s chili spreads
Nobody knows the exact day of the chili’s arrival in Mozambique. But, far more intriguingly, why did it become so popular? Try to imagine that you had never tasted one before – let alone a seriously hot one. So, what’s to like? It can hardly have been love at first bite. Not like, say, your own first taste of honey.
So, keeping that in mind, picture an early meeting between the Swahilis and the Portuguese. We know that these encounters weren’t exactly friendly. But they would have surely been more hostile if someone like Vasco had said, ‘Greetings! Ah, you don’t speak Portuguese. No matter. We come in peace. Here’s a gift, my friend. Try one of these little red numbers.’
Whatever the Swahilis’ initial reaction may have been, the chilies certainly adored their new home. Thriving in the serious heat, they began to spread across Africa as a low-growing, dense bush with short, pointy, slender leaves and small, potently hot berries.
They also got tagged with a new, Swahili name, pilipili, meaning ‘pepper’. It referenced the (Indian) black peppercorns that had long ago been introduced to the Swahilis through their trading across the Indian Ocean. And from that peppery title came the name by which Africa’s ‘native’ chili is now widely known: peri-peri.
The peri-peri is a hardy chili. They don’t need much water and appreciate Africa’s hot sun. Temperatures in the low thirties Celsius suit them just fine for producing plenty of small berries that turn from green to a glossy red as they ripen towards their max heat. Small chilies? For sure. A big one won’t be much longer than one inch (or two centimeters), and it’ll be barely half a centimeter (or 1/5 of an inch) wide.
What makes peri-peri chilies so special?
This is not a brash, muscular chili that’s all about macho heat. It’s 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 peri-peri such a great culinary chili. Mixed with a little oil, lemon, salt, and garlic, 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 peri-peri especially relished in the bottled chili sauces that are particularly loved in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa.
That saucy quality no doubt springs from the peri-peri’s close relationship with the globally famous tabasco chili with which it shares a common South American ‘parent’ – Capsicum frutescens.
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. Peri-peris are a welcome cash-crop for small-holding farmers in Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
I grow them outside in pots. But it’s winter now here in Johannesburg, and my crop is over for the time being. The leaves have browned and crinkled a bit from this winter’s exceptional cold. But they’ll bounce back as spring moves into summer and their small, five-pointed, bright white flowers signal the coming berries.
Buying peri-peri peppers: Potently elusive
Living as I do in Africa’s wealthiest city, Johannesburg, and given South Africans’ high appreciation of all things chili, you might suppose that our Peri-Peris would be easy to come by. They’re not.
Before I started writing this earlier today, I walked to my favorite general food store. Independent and family-run for almost 60 years, it’s big on variety. Here’s a chili-relevant example. They stock 21 types of chili sauce. Twenty-one. Okay, there are three sorts of tabasco peppers, but the other 19 are from small, local producers. On the southern tip of Africa, seems like we like our hot sauces…
And fresh peri-peri chilies? Er, no. Plenty of plump red and green cayennes but no peri-peris. One of the shop’s owner-brothers (who, significantly, are of Portuguese descent) explained that peri-peris are just not that popular. Nevertheless, he’d be happy to get me some from the wholesale fruit and veg market. Seems all you have to do is ask.
Which is great because I could then make a proper peri-peri chicken.