It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when there was no such thing as a ‘cheeky Nando’s’, and the options for so-called “exotic” on the British high street largely boiled down to a Chinese and Indian takeaways or a kebab.
Now, Nando’s and other restaurants serving chicken seasoned with hot peri-peri spices, a bowl of tangy slaw and peppery chips for less than a tenner have been adopted into our melting pot of food culture. There are around 340 Nando’s stores in the UK: a third of the world’s total.
So, how did this fiery chicken graudally take over our palettes, and where did it come from in the first place?
Nando’s opened its first UK restaurant in Ealing in 1992. “Any move into a new country is a risky move in some ways, but we were confident our peri-peri chicken would go down well in the UK with its combination of heat and flavour,” a spokesperson for Nando’s told The Independent. Peri-peri chicken entered the British market at a time when ‘fast-casual dining’ exploded against a consumer backlash directed against McDonald’s, explains George Shaw, a food journalist and a judge on the Asian Curry Awards.
By that time, British taste buds had already become accustomed to spices, heat and a variety of flavours thanks to South Asian food. Unfortunately, adds Shaw, the mainly Bangladeshi curry houses across the country are now struggling to keep up with the changing demands of consumers who enjoy spiced food in a market they helped to create.
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“With the Asian Catering Federation, we run road shows urging owners and chefs to change with the times. Some are doing great things, others haven’t changed their menus in 20 years, and are nowhere near as busy, with two closing every week,” adds Shaw.
The success of Nando’s, which caused other smaller peri-peri chicken outlets to spring up in its path, plays on the narrative surrounding the flavouring’s multicultural origins, says Professor Rebecca Earle, a food historian at the University of Warwick.
“The owners have mythologised a back story as the ‘home of the legendary Portuguese flame-grilled peri-peri chicken”. Peri-peri is swahili for pepper. It suggests a Mozambique heritage although the founders are South African,” she adds. Peri-peri as a term derives from Swahili and other African languages for the type of chile used in the sauce.
“Chile peppers originated in the Americas, and peri-peri sauce is similar in some ways to the ‘salsas’ typical of many parts of Latin America, with its combination of spicy chiles, a source of sourness such as vinegar, and chopped onions and herbs. Chiles were spread across southern Africa as a result of the trade links that resulted from European colonisation of the Americas and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“Similar forces took both chiles and peri peri chicken to Portuguese settlements in Goa, India, and beyond. Peri peri chicken is thus one of the few positive consequences of colonialism,” she adds.
Fast forward a few centuries, and Nando’s has hit a dining sweetspot which has seen it open over 1,000 stores across the world.
“Nando’s is more upmarket but more classless than most chains, sitting somewhere between McDonald’s and Pizza Express. The food is decent, tasty and healthy where you can eat for sub £8,” says Shaw. Its cult status is bolstered by rumours that a select group of celebrities including Ed Sheeran, David Beckham, and Nicola Adams are Black Card owners, which entitles them to free chicken for four guests for life. One particularly dedicated fan tried to eat at every Nando’s in the hope he’d get a Black Card, only to learn that the promotion had expired over two years prior. According to Nando’s Rihanna, Drake and Beyonce all ask for their chicken on their riders when they tour the UK. Reports emerged in 2013 that Queen Bey spent £1,500 at Nando’s at V Festival.
On top of that, many of its restaurants are halal, appealing to Muslim customers, and the emergency services, NHS and military personnel get a 20 per cent discount. The origins of peri-peri chicken, and the colourful decor and artwork mean appeals to cash-strapped millennials who value authentic-seeming brands with personality. The almost untranslatlable concept of the “cheeky Nando’s”, which generally involves a group “lads, lads, lads” eating peri-peri chicken spontaneously, is further proof that it is cemented in the UK culture.
As the popularity of peri-peri chicken shows no sign of fading, Nando’s has unveiled new products, including the Peri-Vusa in February, its hottest sauce to date, and smaller peri-peri restaurants are snapping at their heels. And that is how a mid-range chicken shop won over the nation.