How Chillies and BBQ are linked

Where does BBQ come from?

I am currently reading a book by Michael Pollan called “Cooked”. In this book, there is a chapter that discusses how barbeques arrived in the American South. He states they came to this region with the slaves who had passed through the Caribbean en route to the South.  The slaves had seen the indigenous Indians cooking whole animals “split and splayed out on top of green branches stretched over fire pits”.  The Indians called this type of cooking Barbacoa. The slaves brought the idea to the South and soon  perfected the art of making them.

The term barbacoa gradually became what we know today as a barbecue or BBQ. This form of grilling meat has become popular around the world. There are few countries (if any ) where food is not prepared in this way. It has become ingrained into many cultures and is part and parcel of many cuisines

Barbeque may, however, mean different things to different people. In the Southern USA, it will mean the slow roasting of whole hogs over wood fires. In South Africa, it will mean the “braaing” of meat, satays and sausages over a charcoal fire. In the United Kingdom & parts of the USA, it might mean cooking hamburgers and sausages over a gas grill, and in Jamaica, barbecued jerked meat or poultry.  The list is by no means comprehensive and can go on forever in terms of different variations

This is common knowledge. However, one thing that may not be so well known is just how closely Chillies and BBQ are linked. Sure, we have all seen  BBQ rubs, marinades, and sauces etc made Chillies, but do we know how much Chillies and barbeques are historically connected? Let’s explore the links.


To answer this question, we need to return to the Barbacoa. This form of grilling was introduced to the West Indies many thousands of years ago. It was brought to the region by the Taino people from South America. They had migrated to the Caribbean and had been settled there for thousands of years before any Europeans arrived.

The Taino had travelled across the sea in large canoes. To sustain them during these journeys, they carried a variety of provisions. One provision they certainly didn’t forget to bring with was their beloved Chillies. The Taino has eaten Chillies in South America long before they arrived in the Caribbean. They were so fond of them, there was no way they were going to leave their homeland and not carry Chilli seeds with them. Before long, Chillies were being grown in the Caribbean and soon became part of the region’s flora.

When the Europeans arrived, they were introduced to this form of cooking.  It was, however, not the Europeans who immediately took to the idea. Instead, it was their slaves. The slow cooking process of a barbacoa made the tough cuts of meat they were given as food tender.

Some of these slaves landed up in the South in the USA.  They not only took their barbacoa skills with them, but also Chilli seeds.  It should therefore come as no surprise that the slow cooked barbeque pork prepared by pit masters in the South is seasoned with Chilli powders and flakes.  . Once there, Chillies were there to stay, as was barbacoa. And for good reason too, barbecued roast hog with salt, Chilli seasoning, and a splash of cider vinegar is to die for!

South Africa


Braais – A national pastime

South Africa is another country where there is a historical connection between Chillies and BBQ. It is a country where braaing (as barbeques are known in South Africa) is a national pastime. South Africans are virtually born with “braai” tongs in their hands.  Braaing is something that is done by most segments of the population. Be it through a Shisha Nyama in the townships or backyard Saturday or Sunday (sometimes both) Braai in the suburbs, braaing is a national tradition.

Just how the Braai arrived in South Africa is unclear. Some have it as being there from the days of primitive man. Scientists have found evidence that fire was used to roast meat in the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa. This was done over a million years ago.

Others speculate braais arrived with the Dutch. (The name Braai apparently originates from the Dutch word for grilling – ” Braden.”) One thing is clear, however, that Braais don’t have any connection with the way BBQ arrived in the USA. Braais may be similar to the “Non Southern” way of barbequing (on a grill, not in a pit), but they certainly don’t share the same history

For that matter, the route Chillies took to arriving in South Africa was totally different to how they arrived in the USA. It is probably safe to say that Chillies found their way to South Africa via the Portuguese, Indian migrant workers or slaves from the Dutch East Indies and Malaysia.  There is definitely no connection with the way Chillies arrived in the USA.

The South African link.

How are Chillies used in Braais?

One of the most popular dishes popular at a South African Braai is Peri – Peri Chicken. It is made by marinating chicken in a spicy marinade made with African devil Chillies. The marinated chicken is then braaied over an open fire. This barbeque dish was introduced to South Africa by a neighbouring Portuguese colony hundreds of years ago. It soon became a South African favourite and remains so to this day

Boerewors is a South African sausage that is a staple in most Braais. It has its origins in the Dutch braadworst.  Braadworst arrived in South Africa with the Dutch and was adapted to local tastes, eventually becoming what is known as Boerewors. One of the main adaptions made to Braadworst was the addition of spices like Coriander and black pepper . It is these spices that give the sausage its characteristic flavour. While adding Chillies is not considered traditional, today there are many types of boerewors that contain Chillies

So, what has that to do with the link between the history of BBQ and Chillies, you might ask? The connection is with the Dutch and the slaves they brought to the county.  The Dutch set up a colony in South Africa in 1652.  When they did so, they brought slaves who had their origins in countries like current day Malaysia and Indonesia. These slaves would have definitely brought a love for Chillies and spices with them

It was probably this love of spice influenced the spicing of boerewors, but that’s not where it ended. The Malaysian and Indonesian slaves often worked in their masters’ kitchens, so it was natural that they would have introduced dishes with Southeast Asian origins. In introducing dishes like satays  to local cuisine, they were in essence introducing Chillies to South African cooking.  Bell peppers are an essential ingredient in what are today known as sosaties.   This dish, is marinated meat that is skewered and barbequed over an open fire, has its origins in the recipes for recipes for  Satays that the slaves brought with from their home lands.

While today’s sosaties are not traditionally pungent, the heat of the Chilies in this dish would no doubt have been toned down compared to what the slaves were used to back home. However, but in their original format, societies would have contained Chillies. Satays from Malaysia and Indonesia certainly do


This post is but a glimpse of the historical link between Chillies and BBQ. It doesn’t even touch on where barbequing started – the Caribbean.  Barbeque dishes like Jerk Chicken and pork, which are made with Chillies, are virtually synonymous with the cooking of the West Indies.  It goes back to the very core of where the link between Chillies and barbequing lies, but that is the subject of another post



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