Piri-Piri can refer to a particular type of chili or the sauce made with these chilies, and can be considered Portugal's national chili. The sauce, commonly called molho de piri-piri, is used in countless Portuguese dishes, either as part of the original recipe or served on the side to allow the diner to spice up their meal accordingly.
The method by which the piri-piri chili came to Portugal is debatable, however it is known that Christopher Columbus brought chili peppers to the Iberian peninsula after returning from the Americas. Then, Portuguese traders brought the chilies to their African possessions (Mozambique and Angola), where they probably cross-pollinated with native flora. Eventually, the specific type of chili came to known as piri-piri to the natives (as piri-piri is Swahili for "pepper-pepper"). This chili was then reintroduced to Portugal, keeping its Swahili name.
Piri-Piri is quite hot, with an approximate Scoville rating of 30-50,000 heat units, in other words at about the same level as Cayenne. The flavour is sharp yet not in any way overpowering, and a small amount added to a dish will usually provide pleasing heat-inducing results.
Molho de piri-piri, or the chilies themselves, can be difficult to find outside Portugal. Some recipes can be found on the web, however they often substitute jalapeno peppers to create the sauce. This will be a very mild variety - using cayenne will bring better results. Of course, visiting an authentic Portuguese bakery or butcher will yield success, if you're lucky enough to have one nearby. Pick up some chouriço while you're there, you won't regret it! There are also websites that ship Portuguese piri-piri.
http://www.portcult.com/Portugal.48_piri.htm (The Portuguese Culture Web)
http://www.leitesculinaria.com/recipes/molho_de_piri.html (Excellent recipe!)
-apelet noted that "piri-piri" is a word used in Japanese that can refer to spicyness. Perhaps Portuguese traders brought the word along with their wares?
-liveforever noted that the same variety of chili is grown in Thailand and used in Thai cuisine.
-iamkaym let me know that she spent years in West Africa, and that piri-piri is sometimes referred to as pili-pili, and sometimes as bird pepper. A double handful would hold more than 200 peppers, and were often considered ornamental. People would often instead use country pepper in their cooking, a squashed-looking pepper about 1½ to 2 inches in diameter that can be red, yellow, or light green.
January 30, 2004
Thank you everyone for your kind messages and to apelet, liveforever, and iamkaym for the interesting facts!