Finding Harmony Between South African and Jamaican Cuisine

By Nigel Spence
CJ Contributor

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the southernmost point of the African continent – South Africa- an experience I will not soon forget and highly recommend.

I was lucky enough to stay in the home of good friends rather than in a hotel. They opened their home to me and let me into their lives; teaching me about their country, the land and each other, for which I will be eternally grateful.

On our way to many drinks, our conversations ranged from politics to food and the art of good cooking. It was during these exchanges that we began to explore the differences between Jamaican Jerk Cooking and the South African Braai.

A braai is the South African equivalent of a backyard barbeque and one of the more popular dishes prepared at these gatherings is Peri Peri; which is actually the name of a hot pepper that has Portuguese origins. It made its way through Africa via Mozambique and is now used in many parts of Africa, and in South Africa it is also the name of the dish.

This preparation is similar to Jerk in that it can be a rub, a marinade or sauce and is very spicy. Often a combination of all three may be utilized in the cooking process, like that of jerk cooking, and is usually used on meats which are then cooked on a grill. The most popular meats used are chicken and shrimp; or prawns as they are called in South Africa.

So, as I experienced my first braai in the backyard of my hosts, I found another similarity to our jerk recipes in that cooks were very guarded about the particulars of the preparation and reluctant to let this curious Jamaican chef in on ALL the information required to become proficient at their best dish!

I kept being lured away from the prep area by my new found love, a bottle of South African Pinotage, though I still managed to use my blood hound sense of smell and familiarity with a wide range of herbs and spices to make mental notes. I was able to get a pretty good idea of what was being concocted. After consuming what seemed to be a never ending supply of my sweetheart, Pinotage, the chicken and shrimp was marinated, put on the hot grill, cooked through, and hit with a blanket of the sauce again just before being placed on my plate.

Maybe it was that cool South African air, or the Pinotage, or just knowing I was in the motherland, but what assaulted my palate when I took a bite from the chicken and then the shrimp, er prawns, was nothing short of genius. I was completely blown away that such a few mild ingredients could pack such walloping flavor. SOLD!

After many more conversations in various homes and braais, and even more consumption of Peri Peri and Pinotage, I couldn’t wait to get back to my own kitchen to put together my version of this absolutely delightful dish/sauce/marinade/rub.

I am still working on perfecting my recipe, but what I have is as close as it’s gonna get without the actual peri peri peppers that are near impossible to find outside of Africa.
I substituted with the next best thing, Jamaican Scotch Bonnet Peppers.

Who knew chicken could be this uncomplicated and sexy and especially so with a good Pinotage on hand?

Please enjoy and I hope you get as much of a kick out of this simple recipe as I did!

Peri Peri Sauce
To be used as a marinade and a finishing sauce
Makes about 2 cups

1 cup Olive oil
2 Scotch Bonnets peppers, roughly chopped
(use less if you can’t handle very spicy)
1/2 medium Red Bell pepper, roughly chopped
1/2 medium Spanish Onion, roughly chopped
6 cloves Garlic, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons fresh Ginger, finely chopped
4 tablespoons dried Oregano
3 tablespoons hot Paprika
2 tablespoons dried Thyme
1/3 cup Red Wine Vinegar
Zest of 1 large Lemon
Juice from 4 large Lemons (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons Kosher Salt (or to taste)

Heat 1/4 cup of the oil over low heat until oil is warm but not simmering. Add scotch bonnet peppers, bell pepper, onions, garlic and ginger and allow to gently heat through for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add all other ingredients and the rest of the oil, stir to incorporate and allow to cool. Transfer mixture to a blender or food processor and blend well until all are incorporated. Your sauce is ready to be used but you can allow the flavors to develop more by storing in the refrigerator for a few days. The sauce keeps well for weeks!

You can then use it to marinate any meat or seafood of your choice. It is best to allow meats to marinate overnight. Toward the end of cooking, use the sauce once again to baste the meat just a few minutes before removing from grill/stove for an extra kick.

Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.