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The origins of “Piri Piri” and the spice trade

By Ana Ramos

The red capsicum is a celebration of the cultural legacy and culinary fusions spread by the Portuguese via their trade routes from South America to Europe, Africa and all the way to Hong Kong.

During the 15th and 16th centuries Portuguese sailors were at the vanguard of European exploration, chronicling and mapping the coasts of Africa, Canada, Brazil, and Asia in what became known as the Age of Discovery.

Early 16th Century map showing the extent of Portuguese discoveries from Brazil to South East Asia.

As the Portuguese explored, they created new maritime trade routes and with that transported their cargoes of produce, in particular, highly valued spices.

Their Luso-Asian spice trade from East to West created great fortunes as the Portuguese broke the Arab and Venetian monopoly on south India’s black pepper trade (indigenous in Kerala). From there the Portuguese ventured further through the Malacca Straits and into the Flores / Sunda archipelago to what became known as the Molucca spice islands (modern day Maluku Islands in Indonesia), where nutmeg, cloves and mace grew indigenously.

The Molluca islands, Willem Blaeu, 1630

The spice of the chilis, the “malagueta”, piqued the interest of the Portuguese, who for decades have been looking for easier sources for the then rare south Indian black pepper. Peppers in the 16th Century were as highly prized as gold and silver, and wealthy Venetian merchants kept them closely guarded under lock and key. So valuable was a merchant’s stash of peppers, that they were willed to their favoured surviving family members on their death in the same fashion as their other valuable assets. Any more affordable culinary alterative to peppers must have been an profitable business opportunity.

From its source in the Caribbean, Portuguese navigators took the small red capsicum shaped malagueta peppers home to Portugal and then to Brazil. It became known as chili, chile, or pimento and from there, the Portuguese traders transported it to Africa where it became very popular as jindungo and piri-piri.

In Africa it is commonly referred to as piri-piri (piri piri simply means “pepper pepper” in Swahili). The red capsicum pepper would often be made into a marinade sauce to use with chicken, shrimp and others dishes.

The origins of Piri-Piri sauce is disputed by the west coast Portuguese-Angolans and the east coast Portuguese-Mozambicans, as to who created the piri piri sauce recipe and spread its use across Southern Africa. However, in truth neither can claim absolute rights to piri-piri, as its roots go further back to the Caribbean source of the key ingredient, where the malagueta pepper has been cultivated for over 9,000 years.

What is not in doubt is popularity, that steadily spread across Portugal’s colonial territories and trade routes and eventually piri piri infused cooking returned back to Portugal where it flourishes to this day.

In time the intrepid Portuguese took chilis to Asia, where it became a key ingredient of curries and other spicy dishes across the region. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in Asia 500 years ago, there was no chili in Indian, Thai, Indonesian or Malay food. It is hard to imagine these rich culinary cultures without chili prior to the 16th Century.

Regardless of the fascinating history of this bold red capsicum, it remains a celebration of the cultural legacy and culinary fusions spread by the Portuguese via their trade routes from South America to Europe, Africa and all the way to Hong Kong.

If members and their guests would like your taste buds to take a journey and experience a piece of this Portuguese cuisine then we recommend asking for a piri piri infused dish………at Club Lusitano.


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