near Armacao da Pera, Portugal August 21, 2001 Piri piri chicken
is a classic food of Portugals Algarve, something that we invariably
enjoy whenever we visit this popular region, as we do most years. Its
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
youll have to put your name on a list and queue with the multitudes.
Its vast, seats literally hundreds tables both downstairs
as well as upstairs on an outdoor roof terrace and its
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 youve finished eating);
couples are arguing, making love; but most are just up to their elbows
in, what else, chicken.
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), hes back again with your food.
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 youve
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.
get me wrong, Im 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 wasnt 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 (its 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 whats worse, a thinning patch that at that time
I hadnt 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
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, Ive never
been into whips and chains). Getting it just right, that is the tricky
bottles of molho do piri piri that are sold in every supermarket
and mini-market in the Algarve. Ive gone through bottles of the
gunk and its hardly raised an eyebrow (let alone a bead of sweat).
The flavour, its not bad, but dammit theres got to be at
least a little heat to it. And no two ways about it, those bottles simply,
well, they bottle out. Ive 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, theres heat all right. But
the flavours not a scratch on the real thing for it seems the
peppers need to steep in oil, perhaps a little vinegar, other things
A few years
ago, I thought Id 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 Im pretty hot at. But a mere few
drops of that damn sauce rendered the entire contents of an immense
pot utterly inedible!
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 theyd 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. Thats 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.
had to chuck it? I asked.
no, he said, I ate it!
didnt happen, he said, tears almost coming to his eyes in
recollection. First I drank a bottle of cold white wine quickly
as Id 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 & Jerrys. Still no relief. In utter desperation, I took
a tube of toothpaste and smeared it all over my mouth and lips.
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, didnt help at all. But I couldnt think what
else to do.
Man, that must
have been bad. Real bad.
again? I asked.
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, its approaching dinner time and
all this talk of food has made me rather peckish. In fact, Im
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 Ive purchased a couple of the smallest freerange English chickens
that I could find, chopped them up into small pieces with poultry sheers,
and Ive 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.
dont anticipate having to resort to Neals toothpaste remedy...
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
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 theyll be dry and overcooked.
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.
© Marc Millon 2001