The use of Chillies in South African cooking

The History Of Chillies in South Africa

Many will know that South Africa has a history of having been colonised by both the Dutch and the English. While neither of these countries added much in terms of spiciness to South African cuisine, the people that they brought with them, either as slaves or workers, certainly did.

The Dutch

When the Dutch colonized the Cape, they were accompanied by their slaves from India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. These slaves brought their cuisine with them, and that meant? Of course, you’ve guessed it …. Chillies.  Portuguese traders, who were very instrumental in making the  Chilli known to the world,  had been hard at work and had introduced Chillies to the countries they had originally come from.

The English

The owners of sugar cane plantations in the British colony of Natal employed indentured labourers from India to work in the sugarcane fields. Under this arrangement, the labourers were brought to the country to work for a period of seven years and then would be entitled (in theory) to a paid return journey back to India.   They carried their spicy cuisine with them, and the Chilli was definitely part of the ingredient list.

The Portuguese

While the Portuguese were not part of South Africa’s colonial history, they had colonies which bordered with South Africa. By virtue of their geographical proximity and subsequent events, many Portuguese people who had previously lived in these colonies emigrated to South Africa.  Their cuisine came with them, and once again the Chilli featured

Whilst Christopher Columbus first brought Chillies into Europe, it is the Portuguese who can take credit for making them popular around the world. They introduced Chillies into- believe it not - countries like India and China. They also introduced them to their own colonies.  Angola and Mozambique, which were Portuguese colonies at the time, were given what is now known as the African Birds-Eye (Peri-Peri chilli).  Once planted, it took like a duck to the water.  Absolutely loving the African growing environment, it thrived and was soon very much at home


How Chillies are used in South African cooking

It was inevitable that the Dutch would see Malay and Indonesian influences creeping into their menus as they often had slaves working in their kitchens.

Baboti made with chillies

Current day classics like  Bobotie, Cape Malay curries and Bredies (stews) soon became part of everyday eating. These dishes were often adapted by the kitchen workers from the original recipes to make them more palatable to their owners.  This may have entailed toning down the heating element, but it still meant that chillies had arrived as a part of South African cuisine. Today these dishes are considered traditionally South African and absolutely part of the culture.

A combination of local conditions and factors has influenced the distinct style of Indian cooking that is found in South Africa today.

When the Indian indented labourers arrived in the country, they often had to substitute local ingredients for those that might previously have used back in India. They were also introduced to different tastes and cooking methods by their countrymen, who had come from different parts. With these factors influencing them, the traditional way of doing things changed.  South African Indian cuisine started taking on a shape of its own

Durban curry

Anyone who has eaten a Durban curry knows that this is excellent eating.  When this great curry is filled into a half or quarter loaf of hollowed-out bread to become a " Bunny Chow" - this dish takes on even more greatness.  It becomes a takeaway meal with amazing taste and an incredible depth of flavour.

How the Bunny Chow received its name is the subject of much debate and speculation. The one thing that is for sure, though, is that it is a typically iconic South African dish loved by all. It, together with South African Breyanis (Indian Biryani) and Samoosas (Indian Samosas), are examples of how South African Indian cuisine has come to be as great tasting and unique as it is today.

Being the great cooks that they are, the Portuguese discovered that the African Birds-Eye (Peri-Peri) chilli had taken on a character of its own. It had developed more heat and its own distinctive flavour.  These special qualities were put to exceptional use in the creation of their now world-famous Peri-Peri chicken.

Peri-Peri chicken, which is made by marinating spatchcocked chicken in lemon juice, garlic, Peri - Peri Chillies & salt and then grilling it over an open fire,  found its way across the border and soon became a South African favourite.  Today, this great-tasting grilled chicken is virtually ubiquitous in South Africa  Besides being offered by great Portuguese restaurants ( including Nandos, of course )  you will find Peri-Peri chicken being eaten at many a home-cooked braai ( barbeque).   Once again, an iconic South African dish.

And the final result.

All of these influences have not gone unnoticed by the other parts of the South African nation. All have had their impact on South African cuisine as a whole. Dishes like Chakalaka,  Potjiekos with chilli, offal curry, Chilli Sticks (Biltong with chilli) and Boerewors with chilli, all of which are considered typically South African.

The rich and diverse history of South Africa has made the love of the Chilli an undeniable part of being South African.  Who would have thought that a spice that started out in Central or  South America would find itself so part and parcel of the cuisine and culture in a fantastic country on the tip of Africa.  Absolutely amazing!



African bird’s eye (Peri-Peri chilli) is a small red Chilli that grows to about an inch in length. It has a Scoville rating between 150000 and 175000 shu. Used to make  Peri- Peri chicken, prawns, curries and also  Peri -Peri sauce. Fantastic flavour and a great bite

Piquante pepper. (Also known as the Pepperdew ®)  This small red Chilli with a Scoville rating of roughly 1200 SHU was discovered in South Africa in 1993.  Upon application, the farmer who discovered it was awarded plant breeders rights to protect the species. He began commercial cultivation and successfully began marketing it in a pickled form under the brand name Pepperdew ® The Pepperdew ® brand is currently owned by Peppadew International (Pty) Ltd, who also sell a variety of other products under this name

The Piquante pepper resembles a cross between a cherry tomato and a Chilli, but this purely coincidental (no botanical) link.  The Chilli has a sharp bite when consumed raw but in its pickled format has a slightly sweet taste. Fantastic if stuffed with cheese and served as an appetizer.

A variety of other Chillies are popular  in South Africa, including the Long Slim Cayenne, the Habanero  and also the Serrano, but these are not indigenous to the country  in the way  that  the African Birds Eye and the Piquante pepper are,

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