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What is piri piri sauce? This condiment is sour, sweet, salty and spicy at the same time

Piri piri sauce is a complex and versatile condiment that is sure to spice up your life.
Piri piri sauce is a type of hot chilli pepper sauce used as seasoning or marinade traditionally in portuguese cuisine. Seen here in a glass jar.
Slather this spicy sauce on everything from grilled chicken to scrambled eggs.Louno Morose / Alamy Stock Photo

From Sriracha to sambal, harissa to hot honey, there’s a world of spicy condiments to explore. Piri piri sauce should certainly be on the list. While most known for its integral role in piri piri chicken, this sauce can add flavor to many more dishes, as a finisher for eggs and vegetables, and as a marinade for a variety of proteins.

What is piri piri sauce?

Piri piri sauce is a complex and versatile condiment that is sour, sweet, salty and spicy all at the same time. In other words, it’ll take your palate on a journey. It’s also known as pilipili or peri-peri, depending on where you are. The sauce’s star ingredient is the African bird’s eye chile, with malagueta chiles, lemon, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, onion, oil as well as oregano, tarragon, paprika and a pop of orange zest often rounding out the cast. Depending on the types of chiles used, the spice level of the sauce can range.

Piri piri means "pepper pepper" in Swahili. Chile peppers were brought by Portuguese colonizers to Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau in Western Africa, where indigenous cooks blended their ingredients and techniques with those of the Portuguese, resulting in dishes like piri piri chicken, now often known as "Portuguese chicken." When these countries won independence in the 1970s, many Portuguese settlers fled, heading to South Africa or back to Portugal, popularizing the dish and the sauce there.

Nando's Peri-Peri sauces are sold in grocery stores nationwide.Kevin Britland / Alamy Stock Photo

In the West, many people’s first taste of piri piri came from chain restaurant Nando’s, which brought South African-style flame-grilled Peri-Peri Chicken to over a thousand locations worldwide, including stateside in Chicago and Washington, D.C. The chain bottled up its Peri-Peri sauces and brought them to grocery store shelves and Amazon. Nando’s is still the most accessible option for store-bought piri piri sauce. But there are other purveyors in the market, including Kalahari Pepper Company, which makes an extra-hot version for bold spice lovers and Brooklyn-based Heatonist, which makes an unconventional piri piri sauce with bell pepper and lion’s mane mushrooms. Mama Africa’s Pili-Pili Sauce is another delicious option, which sticks close to the original African version of the sauce.

How to make piri piri sauce

Piri piri sauce is pretty easy to make at home. The hardest part is determining what combination of chiles and aromatics to use. Try this version from Curtis Stone or this one from JJ Johnson, or feel free to experiment. Heat oil in a skillet and add any aromatics like onions and garlic, if using, as well as your chiles. Once they are softened, remove from heat and add in the rest of the herbs, vinegar, lemon juice and salt. Scrape it all into a food processor and give it a few pulses until it’s almost smooth, but still has a little bit of texture. Let it cool at room temperature for an hour before using.

Choosing chiles for piri piri sauce

African bird’s eye chiles are difficult to find in the U.S., but there are some online spice shops where you can find them dried. These chiles are hot — coming in at 150,000 units on the Scoville scale (SHU). As a point of reference, jalapeños clock in at 2,500 to 8,000 SHU while ghost peppers are 800,000 to 1,000,000. Depending on your spice tolerance, these chiles may set your tongue on fire or just give you a tingly wake up call.

The African bird's eye chile is also known as peri-peri, piri piri or pilipili.i-Zet / Getty Images stock

If you can’t find African bird’s eye chiles, you can substitute red Fresno chiles, which have a similar flavor profile but are not as spicy, or use Thai chiles, which can be found in most supermarkets or Asian markets. If you want to maintain the heat level, you can add in a small amount of Scotch bonnet peppers. If you want to avoid the heat entirely, substitute in red bell peppers.

How to use piri piri sauce

  • Marinate shrimp in piri piri sauce for up to 24 hours before grilling.
  • Add a few drops to the top of avocado toast or scrambled eggs.
  • Mix it with mayonnaise for a flavorful, spicy mayo to slather on sandwiches.
  • Brush piri piri sauce on roasted chicken towards the end of cooking, when it has about five minutes left in the oven.
  • Add it as a finisher for sautéed or roasted vegetables.
  • Use it as a dip for fried snacks; the tanginess cuts through the richness nicely.
  • Try it atop rice bowls, like this black pineapple fried rice with piri piri sauce.
  • And of course, make piri piri chicken, marinating chicken in piri piri sauce for up to 24 hours before grilling.

The next time you want to reach for hot sauce or your usual marinade, try reaching for piri piri instead, and you’ll see why people all over the world love this condiment.