Of the few true culinary delights that originated outside the borders of France, chicken peri-peri has to be one. This dish also proves that colonisation was essential in bringing culinary civilisation to the Dark Continent, peri-peri being the result of some enthusiastic domination of the Mozambicans by our Portuguese amigos.
Even if the battle-reluctant Portuguese’s period of colonisation lasted shorter than it takes to marinade an average peri-peri chook.
Peri-peri chicken is thus a standard in most Portuguese eateries in South Africa, although as with most good things, all peri-peri chickens are not created equal. If, for example, the Portuguese still had a say in Africa, they would have called a fatwa against the Nando’s chain due to the dry, wrinkled pieces of anorexic chicken-corpse these ubiquitous institutions offer as traditional Porra fare.
In the city of the Cape, there are only two places to sate the lust for peri-peri chicken that stalks one every two weeks or so. The one is Dias Tavern, down-town near the Parade, while there is also Toni’s, higher up in Kloof Street.
Both offer a homely and unique interpretation of this dish, proving that like fine wine, a sense of place is also important in determining a fine meal.
Toni’s is a bit of a grotty joint, with service to match. Okay, nothing wrong with the service itself – a few smiling and keen immigrants manage fine. It is just that on a busy night the troops are as scarce as a German army retreating through Belgium and getting one order to your table takes about as long as a just-opened Swartland wine needs to oxidise.
Once it gets to your table, though, Toni’s peri-peri chicken is a thing of beauty. A small chicken is cut up and exposed to a delectable marinade in which garlic plays a major role. It is then grilled to give a charry, off-the-barbecue taste along with crispy, fatty skin.
It does taste as good as it looks and smells. More rounded in flavour than gonad-perspiring heat, it is a peri-peri that truly flies with flavour, especially when washed-down with full glasses of iced Casal Garcia vinho verde.
Just be warned: the garlic presents itself the following day, with a brutal consequences. Just ask Jacques Jordaan from Simonsig Estate who had to be resuscitated after being exposed to my morning-after peri-peri presence at a marketing conference.
The peri-peri of Dias Tavern is an altogether spicier, hotter affair. It is also messier as they grill a whole, plump chicken, dousing it copiously with a spicy sauce which soaks into all the cracks and crevices.
The effect is one of sauce and fat and soft flesh, and digging into the oiled, grilled bird causes greasy droplets of a bright red colour to fly all over the place. Wear a white shirt when attacking a Dias Tavern peri-peri and you end-up looking like a just-slaughtered extra from a Quentin Tarantino movie.
At Dias, there is just more. More meat on the chicken. More spice in the sauce. More unctuous pieces of spiced chicken flesh ripped from thighs and sucked from pouting, succulent breasts. Again eaten with Casal Carcia, this chicken peri-peri is an exotic, intoxicating experience bordering on the sensual.
The flavours in your mouth and the heat on your forehead cause a kind of jungle-fever randiness and is obviously the reason that along with peri-peri recipes, the Portuguese left a nation of half-caste bambinos behind in their colonies
One thing Toni’s and Dias should also be commended for is the serving of chips which are cut and fried on-premises. None of those horrid, limp-dicked parboiled chips trucked around Cape Town and sold to lazy, unconcerned restaurants too lazy or dumb to make their own.
For a good chip is also a spice of life, non?