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Mozambique: Piri piri Chicken – spicy and flavorful in all the right ways

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Mozambique Piri piri chicken

We introduced the cuisine of Mozambique to you with our take on Matapa.  Our second dish from Mozambique is the ubiquitous piri piri chicken (also called peri-peri or pili-pili).  While piri piri sauce is popular in Mozambique, it is actually Portuguese in origin and is common to see in other former Portuguese colonies such as Angola, Namibia, and South Africa.  It is a fiery red sauce made up of African birds-eye chilies, lemon juice, vinegar, paprika and other spices that really kicks up the flavor of a chicken.  Don’t worry it’s not crazy hot, just pleasantly warming.  I adapted a recipe from Getaway South Africa.

Piri piri Chicken

Table setting for piri piri chicken

Start by squeezing and straining 3 lemons into a liquid measure.  When squeezing citrus, I always roll the fruit to help break up some of the juice sacs, or vesicles if you want to be technical.  This helps to release more of the juice when you squeeze it.  Jamie Oliver has a good little guide about that. I also microwave the lemon for about 20 seconds which helps release more.  For this recipe, I microwaved all three lemons together for 45 seconds and was pleased with the 2/3 of a cup (157ml) of juice I squeezed out. Pour into a large-mouthed, glass jar (I used an old pickle jar).  Add an equal-part of white vinegar and an equal part of olive oil to the jar.

Lemons for the piri piri sauce

Using a garlic press, squeeze about seven cloves of garlic into the jar.  It’s about a half-head – who doesn’t love garlic?! You could, of course, mince it by hand or use pre-minced, in which case you’d want about two Tablespoons, but I find a garlic press to create more consistently sized pieces. Also, the jarred garlic paste just doesn’t have the same fresh flavor because of the heat involved in the “canning” process.  Except for the sauce that will get basted on the chicken while it is cooking, this sauce will be spooned over the meat raw, so keep it raw with fresh garlic.

Now it’s time for the spices!  Add two Tablespoons of smoked paprika.  The original recipe called for regular paprika, which you could certainly use, but the smoked paprika adds a very nice complexity that you won’t want to miss in this sauce.  Also, add one Tablespoon of regular sweet Hungarian paprika and one teaspoon of onion powder, cumin and oregano.  For salt, I’m a fan of Celtic sea salt wherever possible, so add two heaping Tablespoons (26g) of that.

Finally comes the main event, the birds-eye chilies.  I would have used 14 of the traditional African birds-eye chilies if they were readily available to me, but alas, I couldn’t find them out here closer to Amish country than a big city.  However, I do have some frozen Thai birds-eye chilies that I received as a gift from my friend P.T. at Soc Trang Express in Worcester, MA.  Now it’s important to note that Thai birds-eye chilies can be 100,000-250,000 Scoville units versus the African birds-eye at 50,000-175,000 Scoville units.  With the more potent heat, I scaled back to ten of the Thai chilies because even though I love the heat, I want to stay as close to the original as possible. Chop ‘em up and toss ‘em in the jar seeds and all.

Chicken on the grill

Then just hit it with your immersion blender (you do have one, right?) or close the jar and shake to combine.  Give the jar a rest covered in the fridge until ready to use.  I recommend doing it the day before you need it to let the flavors meld.  Bring it up to room temperature when you’re ready to use.

Basting the chicken with the piri piri sauce

For the chicken, you want to spatchcock it.  If you haven’t heard of that before, don’t worry it’s not scary.  Spatchcocking is simply cutting out the backbone and butterflying it.  It is really easy to do and is my preferred method for both chickens and turkeys in just about every application.  You can ask your butcher to do it, but it is so easy, that I’d rather do it myself.  Simply grab your kitchen shears and cut up the back of the chicken about a half inch (1-2 cm) to either side of the spine and cut all the way up staying parallel to the spine.  Repeat with the other side of the spine.  You can use the removed backbone for stock like I do.  Open the chicken up like a book and push down on the breast bone to break it and make the chicken lay flat.  Finally, cut the wing tips off and reserve them for another use. See, that wasn’t so hard! Grilling god Steve Raichlen makes it look easy on his Primal Grill. I haven’t tried pulling out the breastbone or tucking the legs like he did, but I will next time.

Patrick basting the chicken with the piri piri sauce

Now it is time to grab your favorite beverage and do some grilling.  In Mozambique that would be Laurentina or 2M (pronounced doish-em) beer or a Tipo Tino rum with Sparberry soda (info from Getaway).  Here in PA, it is January and about 35 degrees F (2 degrees Celcius), so I wanted my rum to be warmer.  I made a tasty rum hot-toddy with local honey and lime.  Fire up a full chimney of charcoal and set your grill up for indirect heating over a disposable drip-tray.  Lay the chicken flat, skin-side up and baste with the piri piri sauce.  Repeat basting every 10-15 minutes.

Basted piri piri chicken

Grill skin side up for 30 minutes and check temp. Continue cooking checking the temperature every 10 minutes or so until the breast reads 160-165F (71- 74C) and the thigh is 165-170F (74-77C), about 20-30 more minutes.  About 10 minutes before the end, flip the bird skin-side down if you want crispy skin (and who wouldn’t want crispy skin?!).   Let the bird rest 10 minutes before carving and serving with more sauce.

Carved piri piri chicken

If you only have a gas grill, that’s fine, just turn off burners appropriately so you can cook with indirect heat and follow the process the same as above.  You could also use a traditional oven if you lay the spatchcocked bird on a rack lined sheet tray.  It would be prudent to line it with aluminum foil too for easy clean-up.  Try roasting for a similar time without flipping at 400F, basting and checking the temp regularly.  Hit it with the broiler at the end to crisp up that sweet, sweet skin.

Tasting and lessons learned

Right away, we knew this chicken was going to be delicious.  Even just bringing the chicken into the building, several people stopped to tell Jill and I how good it smelled.  The aroma is just intoxicating, smoky, garlicky and peppery with a hint of zing from the lemon and vinegar. The taste is out of this world.  It’s a great blend of spices that work perfect with each other to complement the peppers.  That smoked paprika really brings it to the next level!  It’s not too hot. Being a fan of the heat, I would personally add several more bird chilies, but it was perfect for Jill.  We fought over the skin and the leftovers the next day!

Tried this recipe?  Let us know what you think about it and comment below!

Patrick Jaszewski

Culinary Tyrannosaurus, passport stamp collector, home cook, pilot, strength enthusiast, bilingual, coffee roaster, former homebrewer. Committed to DIY ethic. Minnesota native transplanted in Pennsylvania. Thunderbird MBA Alumni and Golden Gopher. Undyingly positive and open minded. Drives Jill crazy by questioning everything.

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