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I Spice: Piri-Piri


My chicken thigh, a la Peri-Peri Nutty style. Keep reading to get the recipe. (Monica Bhide)

I love chili peppers: their smell, their texture and their taste. But my tolerance has its limits. I enjoy the heat, but not when it burns my mouth and tongue and leaves me wondering if I will ever be able to eat again. And this is where the piri-piri pepper -- also known as pili-pili or peri-peri -- comes in.

The Portuguese in southern Africa have used it for a long time, but if history serves me right, it has also been used in the western parts of India, where the Portuguese influence is still strong in Goa. I tasted the pepper for the first time here in the United States when Nando’s Peri-Peri opened its doors in downtown Washington. The South African-based chain restaurant (whose Web site says, among other things, “Life is just a bowl of chilies") serves up many levels of heat. I became enamored of their sauces because while there is a nice punch in the pepper’s heat, it does not taste as hot as a habanero.

I have never found piri-piri here in its fresh form, only in bottled sauce versions, which I use a lot. So I was very happy when Rochelle Schaetzl came to town a few weeks ago. Here, I thought, is my chance to learn more about this wonderful pepper. Why would Rochelle know? Well, this South African cookbook author is research and development director with Nando’s Chickenland Inc. As Food section columnist Andreas Viestad reported last year, she has traveled all over Africa to research peri-peri. Her knowledge has been documented in the award-winning book “Peri-Peri: The Contrasts and Contradictions of the African Bird’s Eye Chilli.”

“I love it for its unique flavor profile and resulting versatility,” she told me. "It has a very light, fresh citrus-herbal flavor that blends well with the flavors of most other foods, whether savory or sweet." The specific profile of capsaicin, the chemical compound that provides heat in a pepper, in piri-piri "means that you only taste a bit of heat at the end, as opposed to an overkill of blazing fire that destroys the flavor of what you’re about to eat."

Piri-piri, she added, proves that “less is more” and that “size is not that important.”

While piri-piri is commercially available in a dried whole pod and in coarsely crushed powders, the quality varies a great deal, she says. To use this sauce, which is available on Amazon.com and at Nando's, keep one thing in mind: Simplicity rules. An uncomplicated recipe will allow the flavor of the sauce, which does tend to be mild, to shine through. Take my word with a grain of salt, because I have a seasoned spice palate and do not find this pepper particularly hot. But if you think black pepper has heat, then perhaps use this sauce in small portions.

Try adding it to stir-fries; flash-fry shrimp and add a dash; add it to poultry dishes (such as the nutty chicken whose recipe follows after the jump); jazz up soups, perk up stews, and add zing to fish. Rochelle's book even includes a recipe for hot and cold whiskey piri-piri granita. So let your imagination go wild and don’t just think savory dishes, think drinks and desserts, too.

-- Monica Bhide

Peri-Peri Nutty Chicken
4 to 8 servings

Adapted from "Peri-Peri: The Contrasts and Contradictions of the African Bird’s Eye Chilli," by Rochelle Schaetzl (Jacana Media, 2009).

8 skin-on, bone-in chicken pieces (may use breast halves, thighs, legs or a combination)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon medium-hot piri-piri sauce, such as Nando's Chickenland brand
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup sunflower oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 medium clove garlic, crushed
1/2 cup peanuts or cashew nuts, finely chopped
Leaves from 2 or 3 sprigs cilantro, finely chopped (2 tablespoons), for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a baking dish large enough to hold the chicken in one layer.

Lightly season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, then arrange them in the baking dish, skin side up. Roast for about 30 minutes, or until the skin is crisp and lightly browned. (The chicken will not be cooked through.)

While the chicken is in the oven, combine the piri-piri sauce, peanut butter, oil, soy sauce and garlic in a small saucepan over low heat; stir until smooth. Remove from the heat,. then add the chopped nuts and stir to incorporate.

Brush the chicken pieces generously, using all of the sauce; roast for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Transfer to a platter, garnish with cilantro and serve hot.

Per serving (based on 8): 529 calories, 36 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 41 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 128 mg cholesterol, 471 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  July 17, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: Monica Bhide, chili peppers  
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