Piri piri chicken

Guía, near Armacao da Pera, Portugal August 21, 2001 Piri piri chicken is a classic food of Portugal’s Algarve, something that we invariably enjoy whenever we visit this popular region, as we do most years. It’s simple, fast food that you rip into with your fingers after a day on the beach, accompanied by platters of thin, crispy, salty french fries and a simple tomato and onion salad. We wash this feast down with bottles of chilled vinho verde (our favourites include Quinta da Aveleda, Grinalda and Muralhas); the wine is crisp, green apple fresh, and relatively low in alcohol: it cuts the grease of the chickens, eases the heat of the piri piri chillies, and quenches most ably a huge thirst worked up from a day in the sun.
For us, there is only one place to come to enjoy this local favourite. The town of Guía, near Armaçao da Pera has taken on the mantle of chicken capital of the world (well, of the Algarve at least) and there are dozens of restaurants specialising in just piri piri chicken. But O Teodósio (which bills itself as ‘o rei dos frangos’ — ‘the king of the chickens’) stands head and shoulders above all others, if only for the sheer scale of the operation. This is a wild, fun place to visit, but make sure and come early, or else you’ll have to put your name on a list and queue with the multitudes. It’s vast, seats literally hundreds — tables both downstairs as well as upstairs on an outdoor roof terrace — and it’s as much fun to come here to watch the crazy, hectic scenes as it is to eat chicken. Most everyone here is Portuguese, and of all ages and generations, from babies to tots running madly up and down (inevitably falling and crying) to courting couples, families, grandparents and probably greatgrandparents. This is pure street entertainment: a lottery ticket seller comes by the tables, a photographer snaps your picture (and has the prints on sale by the time you’ve finished eating); couples are arguing, making love; but most are just up to their elbows in, what else, chicken.
Waiters glide, sometimes almost run, between the tables and the service, in spite of the crowds, is impeccable, almost military in its precision and efficiency. You see, this is a ‘high-tech’ operation (I kid you not): the waiters all have funky handhelds that they use to enter your order — on punching a few numbers into the cordless gizmos, the order apparently goes straight to the kitchen, and almost before the waiter has disappeared (it seems), he’s back again with your food.
The choice, it has to be said, is fairly basic: just ‘com’ or ‘sem’, that is with or without piri piri. The chicken comes on stainless steel trays, the skin charred on the outside, crunchy with sea salt, and succulent inside, snipped into quite small pieces that you pick up with your fingers. Best of all, the piri piri seasoning here is just right, the chilli hotness leaving your lips in a sated and ever so slightly numb state, not actually burning or on fire, but sufficient so that you know you’ve eaten frango na piri piri. At too many other places, piri piri chicken can be disappointing because you can hardly taste — or, perhaps more to the point, feel — the piri piri.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those crazy chilli heads that thrives on the macho thrills of eating the hottest foods. Used to be, but not any more. Packed it in a few years back after I inadvertently swallowed a whole piri piri chilli that was lurking in the bottom of a particularly tasty cataplana enjoyed at O Serôl, another all-time favourite restaurant. OK OK, it wasn’t wholly inadvertent: I did see the bloody thing but badly underestimated the full implications of scoffing it whole. The result was explosive in every way, with burning that was so severe that there was no escape from it: water, wine, bread stuffed into my cheeks like a chipmunk, nothing did anything at all. Apart from the searing in my mouth, and worse, down my gullet and into the pit of my stomach (it’s never been the same since, I swear that chilli burned a hole in my gut — I even had an endoscope some months later to see if it was still lurking down there), I began to sweat in the most unlikely places: first beads began to form on my cheekbones, then I felt the heat moving higher, and finally I felt the top of my head and my hair, and what’s worse, a thinning patch that at that time I hadn’t even known was there. Within fifteen minutes of consuming that chilli, by whole head was bathed in sweat, quite embarrassing, really. And as for the next day, well, as you can imagine, that was even worse...
Yet, it is a strange peculiarity of human nature that one rarely learns from such experiences. You see, the difficult thing with piri piri is getting that blasted heat just right, and mistakes are bound to happen from time to time. But when it is right, the heat combined with the flavour of this African chilli introduced into Portugal from the former colony of Angola, is quite sensational, the overall effect much more than a recipe for mere pain and masochism (for the record, I’ve never been into whips and chains). Getting it just right, that is the tricky bit.
Forget the bottles of molho do piri piri that are sold in every supermarket and mini-market in the Algarve. I’ve gone through bottles of the gunk and it’s hardly raised an eyebrow (let alone a bead of sweat). The flavour, it’s not bad, but dammit there’s got to be at least a little heat to it. And no two ways about it, those bottles simply, well, they bottle out. I’ve also gone through literally dozens of the sachets of coarsely ground dried piri piri pepper too. Use enough of the stuff and no doubt about it, there’s heat all right. But the flavour’s not a scratch on the real thing for it seems the peppers need to steep in oil, perhaps a little vinegar, other things too.
A few years ago, I thought I’d cracked it. At O Serôl, memories of that ferocious cataplana now long forgotten, I noticed there were bottles of homemade piri piri sauce on the table, the tiny, pointed chillies pounded and densely packed into little Sumol juice bottles topped with oil. This looked promising! I asked if they would sell me a bottle and my waiter friends were more than happy to oblige, though in retrospect perhaps the bottle was handed over with just the hint of a knowing smile. Of course, I expected the stuff to be hot, but bloody hell, this was in another league: pure liquid nitroglycerin. Now, more than three years on, I still have that Sumol bottle, virtually full, tucked into the furthest corners of our kitchen cupboard. From time to time, I catch a glimpse of it, and resist the urge to bring it out. About the only time I can remember using it was in a Portuguese feijoada (bean and meat hot pot) that I’m pretty hot at. But a mere few drops of that damn sauce rendered the entire contents of an immense pot utterly inedible!
Still, it’s not as bad as what happened to my American friend Neal. He too had purchased a Sumol bottle of the stuff, had somehow managed to get it through US customs at JFK (god knows what would have happened if they’d discovered it: you know how Americans are about such things, poor Neal would probably be behind bars right now still protesting his innocence).
When I met Neal on the Praia do Gaiovatas at Vilalara this summer, he recounted a sorry and worrying tale. Neal loves to cook, and more than that, he loves to eat. On returning home from work in Wall Street one night, he was looking forward to a simple but delicious favourite repast, gambas na piri piri — raw king prawns cooked in a little sherry, garlic, tomato paste and, yes, you guessed it, piri piri. By now, Neal knew of the ferocious power of that red liquid contained within the innocent looking Sumol bottle: in fact he was wearing rubber gloves just in case he inadvertently got a minute drop on his hands, then rubbed his eyes (or worse). Perhaps his hand slipped, who knows, perhaps it was a moment of unguarded, ever to be regretted bravado, perhaps it was just a mere second of inattention. That’s all it takes for disaster to strike. Whatever, Neil ended up adding TWO WHOLE TEASPOONS of the concentrated piri piri essence to those simmering prawns.
“So you had to chuck it?” I asked.
“Hell no,” he said, “I ate it!”
“All of it?”
“What happened?”
“What didn’t happen,” he said, tears almost coming to his eyes in recollection. “First I drank a bottle of cold white wine quickly as I’d heard that alcohol can dilute the power of the chillies. No effect whatsoever. So I drank another one. Still nothing. I tried water. No good at all. I crammed bread down my mouth. I ate a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. Still no relief. In utter desperation, I took a tube of toothpaste and smeared it all over my mouth and lips.”
“Toothpaste?” I asked incredulously. “Did it do any good?” (I was intrigued, would never thought of trying such a creative and innovative remedy.)
He shook his head. “No, didn’t help at all. But I couldn’t think what else to do.”
Man, that must have been bad. Real bad.
“Never again?” I asked.
“Well,” he hesitated, and you could almost see Neal licking his (now recovered) lips in imagined anticipation of a platter of gambas na piri piri, “You know what they say, Never say never...”
I guess some people just never learn. Well, it’s approaching dinner time and all this talk of food has made me rather peckish. In fact, I’m just hankering for a big platter of grilled piri piri chicken. Understand, Portuguese chicken is outstanding not just because of the hot sauce it comes bathed in, but also because of the flavour of the chicken itself, scrawny, small, yellowy birds that spend their short happy lives outdoors. So I’ve purchased a couple of the smallest freerange English chickens that I could find, chopped them up into small pieces with poultry sheers, and I’ve had the bits steeping all day in a marinade of, you guessed it, olive oil, some sliced garlic, a splash of wine vinegar, a splash of supermarket molho do piri piri, and, well, how could I resist, just half a teaspoon, no more, I swear, OK OK, maybe a whole teaspoon, no more, of that super-potent homemade Sumol bottled piri piri sauce. The dose, I think, ought to be just about right, slightly lip numbing, the heat sufficient to bring out the odd bead of sweat on the cheekbones.
I certainly don’t anticipate having to resort to Neal’s toothpaste remedy...

Piri piri chicken

2 freerange chickens, chopped into small pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Half a cup of olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
A generous splash of supermarket molho do piri piri and/or a sprinkling of coarsely ground piri piri chillies (to taste, no less than a teaspoon)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon at most super-potent Sumol bottled piri piri sauce (or try a similar amount of Tabasco habanero sauce)
Coarse sea salt

Add all the marinade ingredients together and leave the chicken to steep in this mixture all day (or at least for a few hours).
Prepare a low charcoal fire. Sprinkle the piri piri chicken with coarse sea salt. Grill over the hot coals until done, basting frequently with the marinade. The trick with grilling chicken is utter vigilance, keeping the pieces on the move almost constantly until the moment they are cooked through, but not a second longer, or else they’ll be dry and overcooked.
When done, serve immediately with a tomato and onion salad, french fries or boiled potatoes dressed with olive oil.
Wine suggestion: Vinho verde or a dry white Portuguese white such as Planalto, Bucelas or Borba.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2001

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Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2001