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Red-Hot Trend: Piri Piri Chicken in Chicago

South African chile adds sweet heat to the latest chicken craze
April 1, 2015
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by Sarah Freeman

A fiery sauce made with (and named for) African bird's eye chile pepper, piri piri makes a perfect accompaniment for the mild taste of chicken. Nando’s, a South African restaurant group specializing in piri piri chicken, with locations around the globe, will open its first Chicago location on Randolph Street later this year. Another piri piri chicken specialist, Cluckson's, is on its way from the team behind Haute Sausage. In the meantime, you can get a taste of this spicy trend right now from three local chefs.

After trying tasting the “amazing” chicken at Rotisserie Portugalia in Montreal, chef Tim Graham decided to recreate it for the opening menu of Travelle. It took nearly a dozen attempts to perfect the sauce, partly due to the rarity of piri piri peppers in Chicago. He landed on a combination of Fresco and Thai red chiles to mimic the sweet and spicy flavor. Each chicken is brined for two days and then marinated for three before it's grilled and served with seasonal vegetables. It's been popular enough to remain unchanged on the menu since Travelle’s opening.

Chef Abe Conlon at Fat Rice, meanwhile, addressed the piri piri shortage by working with local Seedling Farms to grow 1,000 lbs. of chilies last year. The chicken is char-grilled, bathed in a sauce made with coconut milk, tomato paste, peanuts and chilies, and then fired under the broiler a second time. The dish has been such a hit, there are rumors of Conlon braching out with piri piri takeout.

A staff meal favorite turned into a must-try late-night snack at La Sirena Clandestina when chef John Manion decided to toss confit chicken wings in piri piri sauce. His version is made with the same Seedling Farm peppers, to create a tangy sauce that sticks perfectly to the to the crispy skin. It's a messy yet satisfying dish only served after 10:30 PM.

chicken wings
piri piri chicken