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portuguese chicken is the best in the world

After exhaustive research on the ground and in the hammock I have discovered nearly nothing to explain why Portuguese chicken is the best in the world. But it is. You just have to take my word for it. Portuguese chicken, bought from the supermarket, or the neighbours, or eaten in a restaurant, it is invariably juicy and flavoursome. But why?


I was hoping to discover that Portuguese chooks are not reared in cages or fed hormornes or antibiotics. Alas it would seem that actually nor are australian meat-chickens kept in cages and the hormorne thing is just a myth. The widespread use of  antibiotics appears to be under control in the english-speaking-web-friendly world at least, (it’s not discussed in portuguese) if only in the sense that the antibiotics (used to control disease in the animals and linked to the rise of antibiotic resistent infection among humans) in poultry production are limited and controlled by legislation and overseen by industry bodies. There was a specific outbreak of antibiotic contamination in Portugal earlier this year, but it was rapidly stomped upon by conscientious EU-fearing government ministers.

Nor are the local fowl a special and unique breed, as I was anticipating.


When the world-wide-web fails me, I turn to empirical study. Let me say that the Portuguese birds do not look very impressive. Compared with your standard production line woolworths frozen inghams style jobbie they look rather puny. Apparently the average life expectancy for aussie-henny-penny is six weeks. But my favourite lecherous butcher tells me that here, felipe-frango might get as little as three weeks to make his mark on the world. So maybe that’s it. They are the suckling pigs of the chicken industry.


Tia Maria (she’s my neighbour and the fonte of all wisdom) has one word to say on the subject and it is “tempero” (seasoning). I don’t dispute the idea that the Portuguese are world leaders in chicken culinaria, but this theory leaves out the one significant control factor in the research. Me. I am the control. I’ve bought the raw product and cooked chook for myself, my way, in various locales across the globe from Titicaca to Toulouse and my Portuguese bbq chicken is by far the best I’ve ever made.

But: one remaining variable: Piri-Piri. Ingredient unique to Portugal.

So, either my cooking has overtaken my tastebuds’ expectations or Piri-Piri has magical powers. Or Portugal has the best chicken in the world. If you are working on your own theories then I would love to hear them.

My Portuguese BBQ Chicken.

I cook this over hot coals under the gargantuan chimney in my kitchen. I get favouritelecherousbutcher to butterfly the bird or halve it, or maybe quarter, whatever. I wash it, throw some salt at it and give it a few stabs with a small knife especially in the thickest flesh. The quantities of everything are, as usual, completely arbitrary, although for a whole chicken I aim for about a cup of marinade because I like to throw it around.

Lots of garlic
zest and juice of a big lemon
olive oil
piri piri – either a few shakes of the fierce Calvé sauce one, or a lot of dried stuff.

Whip this together and spoon it over the pieces after they’ve had an initial colouring on the grill. I use the “juices run clear” test for doneness, although the Portuguese chook pieces shrink slightly when they are done. Anyway I’m usually too hungry to wait for more than 45 minutes and too paranoid to cook it for less. Whatever, it’s fantastic every time.


Saudades for Yen’s. (Vietnamese-Portuguese Chicken Salad).

In Sydney, I lived above a vietnamese restaurant called Yen’s. The food was so good, inexpensive and fresh that I’d eat there about four times a week. Many friends became addicted to it too, to the point where Yen’s became not just a place to eat, but a part of my life. I named my cat Mao, for example, because it’s Vietnamese for cat  (way before I knew it sounds like bad in Portuguese).

The problem is that in central portugal it is impossible to get the right ingredients. So this is a recipe of careful substitution, and I think it’s a success because eating this helps to calm the beast when I get savage cravings, or saudades, for Yen’s.


Cooked chicken leftovers, ripped into shreds
a pile of shredded cabbage – Couve Lombarda in Portugal
a small finely sliced onion
two handfuls mint
small handful of toasted peanuts
vermicelli rice noodles, if you can find them, soaked in boiling water

Nuoc Cham (a vietnamese sauce, based on fish sauce and chilli)

Shake the ingredients in a jar and adjust according to your taste. Pour it over the salad just before eating.

equal quantities brown/yellow sugar (dissolved in equal parts hot water), fish sauce, white/rice wine vinegar.
2 small seeded chillies and 2 cloves garlic, juice of half a lime/lemon
dash of vegetable oil.

If you can’t get the fish sauce, I have used a mix of one part white or apple vinegar, 1 part oyster sauce, a dash of soy and a dash of water.



  1. Derek September 7, 2009 10:43 pm Reply

    Emma i love your website, but the chicken sound scared the Bejesus out of me. A lesson: dont leave the amp set to “Portishead-level” when surfing the net, some crazy could hide chicken sounds somewhere!

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    Emma   Reply: September 8th, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    What chicken? I think he would scare me too if only I could hear him…I must have mine turned down to rachmaninov levels…

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  2. Elvira September 11, 2009 8:42 pm Reply

    Absolutely! 😉

    Our chargrilled chicken is known everywhere, from USA to South Africa, Canada, Australia… When I travelled to Australia, I was surprised – and proud – to see a lot of portuguese restaurants like Oporto.

    I like your recipe. It is genuine and looks delicious. 🙂

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  3. Isabel September 13, 2009 7:49 pm Reply

    Naaaah… This theory of Felipe Frango being younger than his Aussie counterpart, and that being the reason for his excellence, doesn’t work. The best (and more expensive) ones are always the ones that reach slowly the weight that the consumer buys. The others get pumped up with stuff, and it shows. I got the impression from my googling that 6 weeks is the minimum in Portugal, too, but I’m not sure. If you look here, you can see that Felipe Basic is 6 weeks old and Felipe da Cerca, Campestre or Biologico is 12 weeks old:


    I think that the legislation has tightened with time (and rightly so, because industrial chicken are very unhappy animals if I can judge from the minimum well being requirements that I had to translate once). But I remember that when these newfangled ways of raising chicken first showed up in my village, people would buy them alive from the aviario a week before they wanted to eat them. Then they would keep them at home eating household rubbish until they lost their nasty industrial taste. But they would definitely refuse to eat a frango that tasted like fish, even f it was cheaper and a lot less work than raising them from scratch.

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  4. Isabel September 16, 2009 6:37 am Reply

    Also… at my parents’ there was always a small bottle of homemade piripiri. As far as I know, it was a few malaguetas
    covered with oil and whisky and covered with a cork where a slit was cut so that the liquid would drip one drop at a time. The thing was left to mature for a couple of weeks or months, I think, but I can check with my brother that keeps the tradition.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: September 20th, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Whisky in the piri-piri! Oh yeah! Right that’s it I’m going to grow some chillis now…. As for 3 week old Felipe, well tinyartdirector is with you on that one Isabel. But I still say it explains why they chooks on sale are so tiny and pathetic and tender and tasty… they’re just babies!

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  5. PAULO REIS September 29, 2009 11:32 pm Reply

    Ola Ema , espero que ja fales portugues , no entanto encontrei o teu blogo que acho muito interessante , mostras ter muita coragem para superar as adversidades . Eu vivo na australia e casado com uma ozi girl a 16 anos em N.S.W. mid north coast.quero partilhar a minha receita de frango piripiri, ou frango a cafrial , uma receita portuguesa das excolonias “mozambique” de portugal, aqui vai.



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    Mara Rodrigues   Reply: July 2nd, 2010 at 10:22 am

    This website its really good… have many informations, without being boring.
    Congratulations 🙂

    Paulo Reis, the famous chicken is spoken in the house of my grandparents, who have been in Mozambique for many years.

    Blessed piri-piri … lol
    My grandfather makes a grilled prawns to eat and cry for more, with a sauce that make lick the fingers 🙂

    But i live now with my husband, but ppl near dont have the same good taste for food… i did clams with hot sauce (a version of “Ameijoas à Bulhão Pato”) in the other day, and my mother-in-law, was like: “i cant eat this”

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    Emma   Reply: July 5th, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Oh it´s just too sad when folks dont get food! What else is there to live for?!? Clams with hot sauce… mmm I could have that now, for breakfast! Thanks Mara, beijos!

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  6. esther March 20, 2011 4:11 am Reply

    Hi I came across your web-site while searching for an English supplier of Calve Molho Chilli. Realy enjoyable reading. I come home from Portugal with my suitcase filled with Molho and piri piri each time I go, but no matter how much I bring home it is always gone way before my next trip. I wonder do you know of a British supplier of Calve products please.

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  7. Matt July 19, 2014 11:17 am Reply

    100% accurate title. I think any “yard bird” chix is better than American mutant chicken, but I literally (really literally, not figuratively) dream about Portugal’s chicken. There’s a place in Lagos that some might try to call a tourist trap, but it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten. There’s often a line…DO believe the hype.

    [Reply to comment]


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