The world of striking, spiky flavours was a mystery to me growing up, coming from a milieu where, despite both of my parents being good, instinctive cooks, there wasn’t much by way of garlic, chilli or exotic spices going on.
But when I was 19, a friend who was the drummer in our band invited me to a party in his Greek household, where everything was spicier, more robust and wildly appealing. Even the laughter sounded different. I felt like I had reached a hilltop and seen and smelt a magical world at the other side.
Ever since, I have adored the flavours of Mediterranean cuisines from Greece and Portugal to southern France and the markedly spicier foods of the North African coastal countries.
Of them all, there is one southern European cuisine that is somehow more South African than the others, for the simple geographical reason that Portugal colonised two countries in our near proximity and their cuisines have infused our own ever since.
And peri-peri, whether prawns, chicken or chicken livers, is as much a part of our food ethos as boerewors, bredie and bunnychow.
But raise the subject of peri-peri recipes and you are likely to have a fiery debate on your hands. Everyone who feels passionate about peri-peri will have a firm opinion of how it is or should be made, down to the type of chillies used and how long it should be left to steep so that the flavours will be enriched.
As with any such debates, sometimes it’s better just to absorb as much knowledge as you can, then set the debate and the recipe books aside, put your cook’s hat on, and dabble until you find the recipe that works for you. And that is as valid as any recipe by an old Greek or Portuguese crone who has guarded her definitive version ever since it was given to her on her 21st birthday by her maiden aunt with a stern warning that if she ever veers from the precise recipe as handed down from generation to fearful generation, the worms of a thousand mouldering ravens will infest her rancid soul.
Some say cumin is the secret ingredient that sets a great peri-peri sauce or marinade apart from all others. I respect this school of thought and have been treated to excellent examples of them. But I have come over the years to prefer the simplicity of a peri-peri sauce in which the essential flavours come from combining chilli and garlic with lemon and white wine, with the secret finishing touch of a dash of whisky, which you can even flambé if you like. They don’t even have to contain peppers at all, but if you start by sautéeing slivers of red and yellow and/or orange peppers in olive oil with garlic, then building it up, you should end up with some very yummy peri-peri.
Another method which I think is perfectly acceptable is to buy a commercial peri-peri sauce – there are some really good ones out there – but don’t just use this as the start and end of your peri-peri dish. Marinate the chicken in half of this for a few hours, and after frying, grilling or braaing the marinated meat, heat the remaining sauce in a pan, and add white wine, extra garlic and chilli, and a good squeeze of lemon juice, which will seriously spike up the sauce.
Having said all that, any good recipe is ripe for experimentation, and I was eyeing my little tin of Spanish smoked paprika the other day while planning a peri-peri sauce, and I thought, hang on, why the hell wouldn’t that work in peri-peri? So I did – and it did. So here’s my:
Spanish-Portuguese Peri-Peri Chicken
4 chicken breasts, skin on, bones removed
4 chicken thighs, skin on, bones removed
3T (45ml) olive oil
1 red pimento, deseeded and sliced into strips
1 yellow pimento, deseeded and sliced into strips
2 ripe lemons
2 glasses dry white wine
3 fat cloves garlic, crushed
3 red bird’s eye chillies
1 generous teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
Dash of whisky
Salt and pepper to taste
Start in the morning or previous day, to allow for some marinating. Sauté the pimentos (small, sweetish peppers), or large red and yellow peppers, with the garlic in olive oil gently for five to seven minutes. Use a little more olive oil if you’re feeling brave, as this helps to make a more luscious sauce. Add 3 finely chopped chillies, and squeeze in (I just squeeze through a sieve) the juice of one lemon, one glass of dry white wine and the smoked paprika, and simmer very gently for 10 minutes, partially covered. Season with salt and pepper, stir, blend and allow to cool.
Remove any bones from the chicken pieces (or buy it filleted) and coat with half of the peri-peri sauce, reserving the rest for later. Marinate for eight hours or more. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and panfry the chicken breasts over a moderate heat for 10 minutes, then add the thighs and continue cooking for about another 15 minutes, turning occasionally. Add the juices in which they were marinated, cover and leave to simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and keep warm.
Once your accompaniments are ready (rice, or in my case simple side salads and avocado), add the rest of the peri-peri to the same pan, plus the second glass of white wine, juice of the remaining lemon and, if you like, one each extra chilli or garlic clove. Heat to a simmer and let it cook for five minutes, covered. Add the splash of whisky, stir, pour over the chicken pieces on the plates and garnish with chervil or dhania.
First published in Weekend Argus October 2011