For Spicy, Saucy Chicken Meatballs, Give Them the Piri Piri Treatment

May 21, 2018

Though known today as a popular Portuguese dish, piri piri chicken originated in what is now Mozambique—a country along Africa’s southeast coast, a former colony of Portugual, and home to many piri piri chilies.

This fiery, petite red pepper ranges between 50,000–175,000 units on the Scoville scale, which measures capsaicin, the component that makes hot peppers hot. For some perspective, a jalapeño ranks 2,500–5,000. Which is to say, the piri piri is hot. Very hot.

Hence why lots of butter or olive oil or both get involved in piri piri chicken. Sort of like Buffalo sauce, right? Butter and hot sauce. Except here, the chicken is spatchcocked—or, the spine is cut out and bird is flattened—then leisurely barbecued over charcoal.

But it’s as much about the cooking as it is about the sauce. Piri piris are blended with lots of garlic and lemon and olive oil. Usually herbs, like parsley or cilantro, tag along, too. To go with: fried potato chips, a classic accompaniment to rotisserie chicken in Portugual.

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Recreations of this dish have been popping up here and there and there, like spring flowers, in Stateside food publications these past few years. Most are, like the original, spatchcocked whole chickens, roasted in the oven for at-home convenience.

My recipe takes the term recreate a step further. Then a hop, skip, and jump. We’ll keep the chilies and chicken and potatoes. But we’ll mix up everything else.

Save any extra sauce for everything from steamed veggies to grilled fish. Photo by James Ransom
  • Sautéed peppers and onions. Piri piri chicken’s favorite color is red. I really wanted to play that up here. Red bell pepper and red onion sizzle in olive oil until they’re slouchy and soft and caramelized. Half of them get to chill out, to add moisture and flavor to the meatballs later. The other half get turned into…
  • Piri piri sauce. Those sautéed vegetables plus garlic, chilies, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. I originally whirred this in a food processor, but when the test kitchen took it for another spin around the block, our chef wondered: Why not a blender? Wouldn’t it turn out silkier and smoother? And it did. (Thanks, Josh!)
  • Ground chicken. If you can’t find it, use turkey. I didn’t say this, but: No one will notice the difference. And if you don’t like ground chicken or turkey, pork would be so great here. We’ll mix the meat with the rest of the veg, more chilies, eggs, garlic, parsley, cilantro, lemon zest, smoked paprika, and, instead of breadcrumbs, potato chips.
  • Potato wedges. While you could use the rest of that bag of potato chips as your side, these are only a little more work and a lot more reward. Basically, you cut a starchy russet lengthwise into eighths. Toss those spears with olive oil and salt. Roast at a high temperature, turning halfway through, until the exteriors are golden and crusty.

P.S. If you can’t find piri piri chilies, use a bird’s eye, or other tiny, red hot pepper. Start with a small amount and add to taste.


What’s your favorite spicy chicken recipe? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.