Piri-piri Chicken

Have you tried Piri-piri Chicken? If not, you’re in for a treat. There is a chicken franchise in the U.S. called El Pollo Loco that prepares chicken in a similar way — marinaded in citrus and spices for a few days, then grilled low and slow, and basted with more flavor. I was a big fan. Then we moved overseas, and I tried to duplicate the flavors of EPL chicken at home, but with no luck.

One day I happened upon a Nando’s chicken restaurant in London (at Earl’s Court) and fell in love all over again. Nando’s is a South African restaurant franchise that serves aPortuguese-style piri-piri chicken BBQ (I know, it’s confusing — it has to do with historical migration patterns but never mind that now). Piri-piri (Nando’s spells it differently) is a zestier, tastier and more succulent BBQ chicken than even EPL, so the urgency to grill chicken at home was temporarily quashed — I could just nip over to Nando’s for a grilled chicken fix! When we later moved to Boston, we were treated to even better home-style piri-piri chicken in some of the small Portuguese-run eateries around Cambridge, the best was at a tiny 6-table cafe in Inman Square.

Since that long ago time we’ve found a primo marinade recipe to make at home because we’ve lived the last 6 years out of reach of ready-made piri-piri chicken. The name piri-piri comes from the sauce made with small red chile peppers, called malagueta, that are the key flavor ingredient in the marinade. Finding the right pepper sauce, also called molho de malagueta, is the first and hardest part of making this recipe. Look for it in Brazilian or Portuguese markets in your area — it is a thick, deep red sauce usually sold in a tapered bottle. There is also a clear vinegar sauce with whole peppers floating in the bottle that is also labelled molha de malagueta or piri-piri sauce, but that’s not what we use.

Also, the malagueta chile pepper used in this sauce is not the same as the melegueta pepper, also known as “grains of paradise.”

The original recipe from which this is adapted says you can substitute Tabasco (brand) sauce for the real thing, but the chicken will taste very different when made with Tabasco (and by different, I mean “wrong”). The Portuguese sauce is much thicker than Tabasco, and has a wholly different flavor. If you don’t care for very “hot” foods, don’t worry. The cooked chicken does not enflame your mouth with pepper-heat — the piri-piri sauce is primarily a flavoring agent. You can, of course, increase the heat by adding larger amounts of piri-piri sauce to the marinade.

This recipe is more like the home-spun piri-piri chickens we enjoyed around Cambridge than the commercial versions. Plan to prepare the marinade at least 24 hours before you intend to start grilling. If you can give it a 2-day headstart, you will be richly rewarded.

Warning: once you do try this chicken, you may become as obsessed with its addictive flavor as we have!

Adapted from The Barbecue! Bible (1998) by Steven Raichlen

For the Marinade:
1/4 cup olive oil
4 TBL. unsalted butter
1 whole lemon, juiced and rind cut into 10 pieces
1 TBL. red wine vinegar
2-3 TBL. Piri-piri sauce (use minimum 2 TBL. to get the piri-piri flavor)
2 tsp. sweet paprika
3/4 tsp. ground coriander seed
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 scallions, washed and thinly sliced
3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, washed and leaves separated from stems
1” piece of ginger, peeled and slivered
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

Place all marinade ingredients except lemon rinds into a blender or food processor. Puree until smooth. Taste and correct for salt, especially if using larger quantity of piri-piri sauce. Put half of marinade and the lemon rinds into a non-reactive bowl, or a large plastic zipper bag.

1 whole chicken (3.5-4lbs/1.5-1.8kg), cleaned, backbone removed, and cut into quarters

Cut partially through the leg joints where the the drum and thigh meet. Carefully slide a finger under the skin and loosen skin from flesh. Add leg portions to marinade, and insinuate some marinade between skin and flesh.

Cut partially through the joint between wing and breast. Carefully separate skin and flesh around the breast, and make a pocket between the tenderloin and the top of breast. Add to marinade, and also incorporate marinade under skin and next to tenderloin. Add remaining marinade, cover and let marinate in fridge for at leat 24 hours. 48 is better. The best we’ve made at home was marinated for 60.

Prepare your BBQ or grill for cooking with indirect heat. (Learn how from the master himself at Steve Raichlen’s site)

Oil your grate well. Add chicken pieces to the grill, skin-side up. Baste with remaining marinade, cover grill and cook for 30 minutes. Uncover and baste again with marinade. Discard any remaining marinade. (Do not use marinade to baste in the last 10 minutes of grilling.) Cover grill and cook another 20-40 minutes, or until the juices run clear in the thickest part of the thigh and breast (instant-read thrermometer will show 180F). Leg joints may cook faster than breast quarters, so start checking them first.

If you want to crisp up the skin, cook over direct heat for the last 5-8 minutes of grilling time.

Cut into serving pieces. In every restaurant we’ve ever had piri-piri chicken, it is served with fried or roasted potatoes, but at home we prefer rice! Offer extra piri-piri sauce and lemon wedges on the side.