Are Malagueta & Piri-Piri Chillies the same?

Solving the mystery

The Piri Piri or African devil is one of my favourite Chillies. It has great flavour and has a hot, pleasant bite. It is used among many other uses in cooking to make Portuguese favourites, like Piri-Piri chicken, prawns, sauce and Piri Piri oil. It is a favourite in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and many other Portuguese speaking parts of the world.

One thing that I have always found fascinating is the relationship between the Piri- Piri Chillies and the Malagueta Chillies from Brazil. I have known they are distant cousins, but which came first? The Malaguetas or the Piri- Piri. There is no doubt the Portuguese who introduced the Malaguetas to Africa, but where did they encounter Malaguetas for the first time? Did they find them in Brazil when they discovered the country, or was it somewhere else?

To answer this question, I decided to do some investigation. I put on my detective’s cap. Chief inspector Morich was on the case. It was time to solve the mystery of the Malaguetas and Piri- Piri Chillies. And what an investigation it would turn out to be!

The first thing I investigated was what the similarity is between Malaguetas and Piri Piri Chillies. I wanted to find just how close they are. After all, Chillies grown in different environments (even if they start the same) may develop different qualities. They may differ in taste, size, and pungency. Was this the case with Malaguetas and Piri- Piri Chillies? I certainly wanted to find out.

A matter of size


One thing I knew for sure is that both Chillies are from the Capsicum frutescens species. That much they have in common. Both these Chillies grow facing upwards. This is a characteristic of C frutescens. The next thing they had in common is pod size. Both Chillies can grow from 1 centimetre to 3 centimetres. When a Malagueta grows to full 3 cm size length, it is called a Malagueta. However, when it is picked when it is smaller, it is called a Malaguetinha

Now this is where it becomes interesting. It appears only the smallest fruits are called Piri – Piri in Angola, Mozambique and Portugal. The largest are simply called chilli (pimenta). This was an important distinction. It implies a Piri- Piri African Devil /Piri Piri Link to African Devil pageChilli is probably closer to a Malaguetinha in terms of name than a Malagueta. The direct comparison to a Malagueta is more likely to be the other name for the Piri-Piri Chilli – the African devil

I then compared the pungency levels of the Chillies. My research suggests the African devil is more pungent than a Malagueta Chilli. An African devil is rated between 100000 and 150000 SHU. The Malagueta, on the other hand, is only between 50000 and 100000 SHU. I couldn’t determine whether these heat levels can be found in the smaller fruit, but for purposes of this exercise I was more interested in the fact that there is a difference in heat levels between the two Chillies

The next thing I looked into was when African devils were introduced into Africa. I believed the answer lay in Brazil. My suspicion is that the Portuguese discovered Malagueta Chillies growing in Brazil when they conquered the country. I don’t think the Portuguese introduced them to the country

Now some might disagree with this statement. The argument would be that Christopher Columbus was the first to discover this Chilli when he arrived in the West Indies. Surely it would have been through his discovery that the Portuguese would have acquired seeds they would have taken to Brazil.

Somehow, I doubt it. Think about it. Chillies originated in South America. It is thought their cradle is the Amazon basin somewhere in Southwestern Brazil or Central Bolivia [Source Jean Andrews]. Even if the origin of Chillies was in Bolivia, there would have been more than enough time for birds to have dispersed all over Brazil before the Portuguese arrived. Why would have needed to take seeds to a country where the Chillies were growing wild?  It just doesn’t add up!

It is my belief that this is a sound argument. The next step was to determine when Portugal colonised Brazil, and compare that with when they arrived in Africa. Portugal discovered Brazil in 1500. However, they only colonised it in 1532. Portugal colonised Angola in 1575 and began settlements of what was then known as the Portuguese East Africa in 15o5.  This territory was later to become the colony of Mozambique

I believe it is safe to say that the Portuguese introduced Malagueta Chillies to these colonies. It was the differences in growing conditions that led to what was originally a Malagueta turning into an African devil, and a Malaguetinha becoming a Piri- Piri Chili


My conclusion is that Malaguetas definitely arrived first. These Chillies had probably been growing wild in Brazil for thousands of years before the Portuguese arrived. It was however Portuguese slaves who gave Malaguetas their name . They named it after the Melegueta spice they had eaten in their home country. It was through the influence of these slaves cooking on Portuguese cooking that has resulted in some of the spicy Brazilian dishes we know today.

Image credits

Alan Levine  / CC BY 2.0 / via Flickr

Alex Popovkin, Bahia, Brazil  / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0  /via Flickr 


Jean Andrews :The pepper lady’s pocket pepper primer  1998  ISBN- 978-0292704831





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