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A Piri Piri Guide – Colors, Uses, Growing and More

If you’ve ever encountered a Piri Piri pepper, you know that they’re spicy and delicious. Piri Piri peppers have a distinct, smoky flavor and a high spice level, making them one of the best peppers to cook with.

Piri Piri peppers, which means “pepper pepper” in Swahili, are small, spicy, and flavorful red chili peppers that are often grown in tropical African countries. They’re typically glossy and red, measuring no longer than an inch long. Their heat level ranks at 30,000-100,000 SHU.

Let’s get into the details about what makes Piri Piri peppers so unique and desirable. We’ll discuss the origins of Piri Piri peppers, talk about the pepper’s heat level, some common uses for them, and how you can cultivate your own Piri Piri peppers at home.

Photo of a bunch of piri piri peppers on a white backdrop
Photo by Discovod

What are Piri Piri Peppers?

Piri Piri peppers can also be called Peri-Peri, Pili Pili, African bird’s eye, or African red devil peppers. They’re chili peppers from the capsicum frutescens species, which Tabasco peppers also belong to. Piri Piri peppers are small, red peppers that have a high heat level. They’re usually no longer than an inch (2 cms) long, and they have glossy, red, or purple skin when ripe.

Piri Piri pepper plants are small, usually growing no taller than 3 feet (1 m) high. These tiny plants bear tons of peppers, making them an excellent plant to grow at home. The immature Piri Piri peppers are green in color, but they ripen to either a bright red or purple color. As they mature, they develop an intense heat, and they have a Scoville heat unit score of between 30,000 and 100,000 SHU.

Piri Piri peppers grow best in tropical climates with long bouts of dry, hot weather and occasional heavy rain. They need well-drained soil and full sunlight to grow, but they’re generally much less sensitive to temperature change and drought than other chili peppers.

Where are Piri Piri Peppers From?

Piri Piri peppers are chili peppers that originate in South America, like all chili peppers. As European colonizers such as Christopher Columbus landed in North and South America during the 1400s and 1500s, they took spices, fruits, and vegetables, such as chili peppers, back to their homelands in Spain and Portugal.

Since Spain and Portugal were empires that extended into African territories, they sent Piri Piri pepper, among other American chili peppers, to be grown in Africa, where the hot and tropical climate was perfect for chili pepper cultivation.

The Piri Piri pepper was initially introduced to Mozambique by Vasco de Gama and other Portuguese explorers in the mid-1400s. Chili peppers such as the Piri Piri pepper thrived in Mozambique’s warm, dry climate and flourished in equatorial African nations’ dry, sandy soil. Eventually, the Piri Piri pepper became a staple in Mozambique’s cuisine, where it’s still enjoyed today.

From Mozambique, the Piri Piri pepper spread into other countries in Africa, where they are still grow today. In many African countries with a tropical climate, such as Ghana, Kenya, Angola, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia, Piri Piri peppers grow wild thanks to the help of birds who help spread their seeds all over. Because of that, Piri Piri peppers grow wild in many countries with a similar climate as Mozambique.

How Hot are Piri Piri Peppers?

Piri Piri peppers are well known for their intense heat level. Depending on where they’re grown, Piri Piri peppers usually have a Scoville heat level between 30,000 to 100,000 SHU. Scoville units are determined by the amount of capsaicin in a pepper, which is the compound in peppers that gives them their spiciness.

To get an idea of how spicy Piri Piri peppers are, take a look at this chart and compare its spice level to that of some of the most popular peppers.

PepperAverage Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
Bell Pepper0 SHU to 100 SHU
Jalapeño2,000 SHU to 5,000 SHU
Tabasco30,000 SHU to 50,000 SHU
Cayenne30,000 SHU to 50,000 SHU
Piri Piri30,000 SHU to 100,000 SHU
Scotch Bonnet100,000 SHU to 350,000 SHU
Habanero100,000 SHU to 350,000 SHU
Carolina Reaper2,000,000 SHU to 2,200,000 SHU

So, while Piri Piri peppers pack a spicy punch, they’re not as spicy as Habanero peppers, and they’re far milder than the Carolina Reaper, the most pungent pepper in the world. Still, they’re pretty spicy and have a similar amount of capsaicin as a Cayenne pepper does. Because of their spiciness, Piri Piri peppers are excellent for spicy dishes.

What do Piri Piri Peppers Taste Like?

While Piri Piri peppers are spicy, they also have a distinct flavor that makes them truly unique and delicious. Piri Piri peppers have a smoky flavor, often compared to spicy smoked peaches. Since they’re sweet and spicy, they add tons of flavor to foods, making them an exceptional ingredient in many dishes. A Piri Piri pepper’s flavor is difficult to replicate, so if you want a Piri Piri pepper’s authentic taste, you need to try and get the real thing.

True Piri Piri peppers are sweet and tangy, but they’re also very spicy, making their flavor extremely complex. The spice level of a Piri Piri pepper can differ depending on where it was grown and when it was harvested, but more often than not, Piri Piri peppers pack an intensely hot punch. Because they’re both spicy and highly flavorful, Piri Piri peppers are excellent when paired with mild or bland foods.

What Does Piri Piri Mean in English?

Piri piri is a Swahili name that means ‘pepper pepper.’ The Portuguese, who imported the peppers to Mozambique after introducing them to the area, adopted this name straight from the pepper’s Swahili name. Initially, the Swahili word for Piri Piri pepper was the name ‘pili pili.’ When the Portuguese colonizers heard the pepper’s Swahili name, they wrote it down, spelling it Piri Piri.’

Before the Portuguese explorers brought chilis such as Piri Piri peppers to Mozambique, there were absolutely no peppers growing in Africa. Still, they quickly spread across many countries after their introduction to the continent. European countries, which bought Piri Piri peppers from Portugal and brought them in from other colonized nations in Africa, also adopted the name Piri Piri.

Still, there are even more names for Piri Piri peppers. Over time, English-speaking countries began to call the pepper by new English names. English-speaking countries often call the Piri Piri pepper the African bird’s eye pepper or African red devil pepper.

Why is Piri Piri Spelled so Many Different Ways?

Since Piri Piri is a Swahili name, the pepper has a different name in many other countries. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Piri Piri is called Pili Pili. In Malawi, it’s called Peri-Peri. These different spellings of this pepper’s name indicate that people from various countries heard the Piri Piri pepper’s name and spelled how they thought it sounded to them.

Piri piri is also the Swahili name for the famous chili sauce made from Piri Piri peppers. So, depending on where you are and what you’re referring to, the Piri Piri pepper can have a different spelling. Generally, though, Piri Piri is the most standardized name for this unique chili pepper.

A close up shot of a heap of red piri piri peppers
Photo by Discovod

What are Piri Piri Peppers Used For?

Piri Piri peppers are an excellent addition to many different kinds of dishes. They’re most commonly used in marinades and dry rubs, especially on chicken and fatty fish, but they’re also excellent when paired with beef and pork. They make a superb basting sauce or marinade for vegetables since they give foods a smoky, sweet, and spicy flavor.

Piri Piri sauce is a staple in many dishes from Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and other African nations.

The hot chili sauce made from Piri Piri peppers is extremely popular in those countries, and it’s often added to rice, noodles, fish, yams, and chicken to give them a spicy and uniquely smoky flavor. If you’re interested in cooking some traditional dishes from tropical African countries, Piri Piri peppers are some of the best peppers to use.

Piri Piri peppers can also add a punch of heat as a topping or ingredient in pizza, sandwiches, burritos, tacos, pasta sauces, and so much more. When it comes to Piri Piri peppers, a little goes a long way since the spice can be pretty intense. They’re also popular hot sauce peppers, and the chili sauce made from Piri Piri peppers is one of the most renowned and coveted ingredients in hot sauces.

Many people use Piri Piri peppers to add spice to pickled peppers and pepper jelly. Since these peppers are quite spicy, adding one or two of them to pickled peppers or pepper jelly can already add an intense kick of spice and a unique flavor to your otherwise sweet concoctions. Piri Piri peppers are also commonly used in salsas, and they’re excellent when paired with onions, garlic, and tomato.

In addition, many people use dried Piri Piri peppers as a table seasoning. Dehydrated and powdered Piri Piri peppers make an excellent seasoning for soups, stews, rice, fish, eggs, and so much more. Piri Piri peppers, with their savory taste and sweet, spicy punch, make a fantastic seasoning for many delicious and sweet dishes.

What are Good Substitutes for Piri Piri Peppers?

While Piri Piri peppers are very commonplace in African countries with tropical climates, it can be challenging to find them in Europe and the United States. You may be able to find Piri Piri hot sauce or dried Piri Piri peppers at the store, but finding fresh ones can be challenging. If you don’t have access to Piri Piri peppers, you can use other chili peppers with similar heat levels as substitutes for them.

The most popular and closest substitute for the Piri Piri pepper is the Tabasco pepper. Tabasco peppers are very closely related to Piri Piri peppers, and they even share the same scientific name, capsicum frutescens. Since Tabasco peppers have a heat level of 30,000 to 50,000 on the Scoville heat scale, which is slightly less spicy than Piri Piri peppers, they have a similar taste.

You can also use Cayenne peppers as a substitute for Piri Piri peppers. Cayenne usually has a Scoville heat unit score of 30,000 to 50,000, so it’s a little less spicy than the hottest Piri Piri peppers but not much milder. Cayenne peppers don’t have an intense flavor, although they’re very spicy. They do, however, bring out more flavor in any food that you add them to, making them an excellent seasoning pepper.

Scotch bonnet peppers also are great substitutes for Piri Piri peppers. They’re much spicier than Tabasco peppers, with a Scoville heat score falling between 100,000 and 350,000. Scotch bonnet peppers are also chili peppers that are originally from Jamaica, but they now also grow in similar African countries as the Piri Piri pepper. Scotch bonnet peppers pack the spice that Piri Piri peppers do, making them an excellent substitute.

Can You Grow Piri Piri Peppers in Containers?

Since Piri Piri pepper plants are so small, usually not growing taller than 3 feet (1 m) at the most, they’re excellent plants to grow in containers. And since it can be challenging to find fresh Piri Piri peppers at supermarkets, growing your own is a perfect way to incorporate them into your diet. They’re also relatively simple to grow in containers.

To grow your own Piri Piri plant, you’ll need seeds, a small pot to germinate the seed, potting soil, and a container that is at least 10 inches (25 cms) wide in diameter. Your container should have plenty of drainage holes since Piri Piri peppers grow best in well-ventilated and well-draining, loamy soil.

To start growing your Piri Piri plant in a container:

  1. Germinate your seeds. In a small container, such as a paper egg carton or a seedling pot, put two or three Piri Piri pepper seeds just under the surface of potting soil. Moisten the potting soil with a trickle of water or a spray bottle.
  2. Water every day. When you’re germinating the pepper plant seed, it’s essential to keep the soil moist but never allow it to become muddy. Your pepper plant should sprout in about 14 days.
  3. Transplant once the sprout grows large leaves. When a seed sprouts, it grows delicate, small seed leaves and then sheds them when mature leaves grow. Once your seedling grows mature leaves, you can transplant them into your larger pot.
  4. Water less. Once you’ve transplanted your Piri Piri plant, you can decrease the amount of water you give it. Generally, keep the soil moist at all times, but never allow it to build up water or become muddy.

It’ll take a few months for your Piri Piri plant to mature to the point where it grows flowers. Once it produces flowers, you may want to shake the plant a bit to ensure that the flowers are fertilized. After sprouting, your Piri Piri peppers will be ready to harvest when they’re around an inch (2 cms) long and have become bright red.

Can You Grow Piri Piri Peppers Indoors?

You can grow Piri Piri peppers indoors, and they make lovely indoor plants. Since Piri Piri pepper plants are relatively small and only need a container that is at least 10 inches (25 cms) wide to flower and produce peppers, they can fit very well in indoor spaces. They also need to be kept at temperatures between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (21 and 29 degrees Celsius), so growing your Piri Piri indoors can even help it grow and stay alive over the wintertime.

Piri Piri peppers need full sunlight, so you should only grow your pepper plant indoors if you have a window with plenty of sun exposure or a grow-lamp. When you’re growing a Piri Piri plant indoors, you should routinely turn its container to ensure that the entire plant gets enough sunlight to thrive.

You may also need to pollinate the flowers by hand. Since outdoor flowering plants rely on wind or pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and wasps to fertilize their flowers, you may need to pollinate your Piri Piri blossoms, by gently shaking the stem of the plant. The shaking will dust the flowers’ stamens with pollen, fertilizing the flower and ensuring that it’ll produce a pepper.

Closing Thoughts

Piri Piri peppers are delicious, spicy, sweet, savory, and smoky peppers with a unique flavor. They most commonly grow in African countries, where they’re an essential part of many meat, vegetable, and grain dishes. Piri Piris are excellent indoor and container plants and growing your own can help you incorporate their delightful flavor and spice into your diet. There is nothing like a fresh Piri Piri pepper, so we encourage you to give it a try.