Let’s Make Peri Peri Chicken
Spicy grilled chicken alert! Ignite your taste buds with this international fan favorite.
Article, recipe, and photographs by Marrekus and Krysten Wilkes of Cooks with Soul
Peri Peri Chicken is a dish with African and Portuguese roots that’s now popular in many countries around the world. The chicken explodes with sweet, earthy, and spicy flavors – a blend of chilies, cilantro, basil, garlic, lemon, and olive oil — plus the smoky flavor of the grill.
My first experience with Peri Peri Chicken (aka Piri Piri Chicken) was when I was deployed to Qatar for a year. I had it at an international restaurant chain called Nando’s. The flavor profile absolutely blew me away and reminded me of the spice markets in Bahrain — complete sensory overload.
Fast forward a couple years later, we moved to Maryland, where we currently live, and discovered a Nando’s restaurant near our house. Krysten and I went there for a date and she absolutely loved it. We both ordered the Peri Peri Chicken. Krysten opted to have hers in a bowl with rice, beans, grilled vegetables, and hummus, and I went with chicken thighs and French fries with their spicy sauce.
Like many people, due to quarantining, we found ourselves trying to recreate some of our favorite dishes at home. I think we got pretty close! Here’s how our version of Peri Peri Chicken goes together.
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Ingredients for Peri Peri Chicken
Ingredients for peri peri sauce, including fresh herbs, red bell pepper, lemon, oil, red jalapeño chilies, red serrano chilies, blackening rub, and garlic.
Peri Peri Chicken is special because of the sauce that the chicken is marinated in. Peri peri sauce can be as spicy or as mild as you want it to be, as a result of the type of chilies you use.
Ingredients for peri peri sauce. Normally when you make Peri Peri Chicken you use African bird’s eye chilies, but they’re pretty hard to find. So we adapted the recipe to use red serrano chilies, red jalapeños, and red bell pepper for the beautiful, crimson-orange color that peri peri sauce is best known for. (You can use green chilies if that’s what available, but the color will be different.) We also included some of our blackening rub — you can use any favorite brand — as well as lemon, garlic, fresh herbs, and oil.
How to modify the heat. Our version of Peri Peri Chicken is medium hot and super flavorful without being overpowering. To cut the heat down some, we went with some fresh herbs to balance out the flavor. If you want more heat, go with more serrano chilies or even some habanero. For a milder marinade, go with more red bell peppers and remove the membranes as well as the seeds from the chilies.
Which chicken to use? A whole chicken is best, in my opinion, because you get multiple cuts. (Krysten, for example, prefers chicken breast, whereas I prefer the thigh. The kids mostly love the breast and the drumsticks. With whole chicken, everyone gets what they want. But you could also go with chicken pieces.) Leaving the skin on is also the way to go because it protects the meat and keeps it from burning over the hot coals. You can always remove the skin after cooking, but if you decide to go that route, I recommend removing it during the last 10 minutes of the cook, when you are basting the chicken with the remaining peri peri sauce. That way, the meat of the chicken will have flavor inside and out.
Use lump charcoal if possible. When I was living in Qatar, what really drew me in and made me want to try this dish was not only the smell of the spices, but the unmistakable aroma of meat cooking over hot coals. Not just your ordinary charcoal briquettes, but lump charcoal that has been burned down from hardwood such as oak or hickory. When juices from the meat drip down on the hot coals and the two smells marry, your taste buds will definitely go into overdrive. So, in order to get that original Nando’s experience, I went with lump coal from my local BBQ supply store.
How to make Peri Peri Chicken
Grilling Peri Peri Chicken over lump charcoal
Peri Peri Chicken actually goes together pretty fast. The only thing that might slow you down is the marinating time.
1. Make the peri peri sauce. Dump everything into the food processor: red pepper, two kinds of hot peppers, cilantro, basil, garlic, blackening seasoning, lemon juice, and vegetable oil. Blend, then scrape down the sides and blend again. We like the sauce so it still has a little texture — not too runny, not super thick or chunky. If you’d like extra peri peri sauce for serving, as we show in the recipe below, double the marinade (it keeps a few days in the fridge).
2. Marinate the chicken. We marinated the chicken for an hour, but you can marinate it for as little as 30 minutes or up to 24 hours to intensify the flavor. Before cooking, drain and discard the marinade.
3. Grill — or bake. When you grill Peri Peri Chicken outdoors, you will have your entire neighborhood trying to figure out where that wonderful aroma is coming from. But if you don’t have a barbecue, don’t be discouraged! You can cook the chicken on a baking sheet in a 400°F oven. This dish will turn out delicious, no matter what cooking apparatus you are using. For grilling, you want medium heat (350°-400°F); with high heat, the chicken would scorch.
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What to serve with Peri Peri Chicken
For serving, we plated our Peri Peri Chicken with flavorful yellow rice; grilled peppers, onions, and tomato; and arugula. Feel free to get creative with your side dishes, as this chicken pairs great with just about anything. If you want to, you can even pull the chicken from the bone and make a Peri Peri Chicken bowl with hummus, black beans, rice, corn or other veggies, and whatever toppings you like — you can go crazy.
Next, we’ll probably try out a new spin like Peri Peri Chicken tacos. We will also experiment using the peri peri sauce on other dishes such as fish, shrimp, and even steak. The versatility of this sauce gives you endless options for what to use it on. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have!
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