The cruelest prison of all is the prison of the mind.
~Piri Thomas

Petit and piquant, piri piri (also known as bird’s eye or African red devil) is a cultivar of Capsicum frutescens, which is both a wild and domesticated chile pepper.

Piri piri rolls off the ever seductive Portuguese tongue which did not so gently settle into the lush, tropical lands of the República de Moçambique (Mozambique). Not unlike most European-African incursions, Portugal began to colonize these lands in the early 16th century. Mozambique’s natives and natural resources, particularly gold mines, sugar and copra plantations, endured serious exploitation. Indigenous peoples were subjected to harsh conditions, punitive laws, and restricted rights all the while “settlers” were lured to a land claimed to be flowing with milk and honey. Sadly, a familiar tune.

Independence from this colonial yoke was finally achieved in 1975, yet Mozambique was soon ravaged by civil war, economic woes and famine. Relative peace was reached, ending sixteen years of brutal strife and allowing the country to begin drifting toward some form of stability. Still, the civil war that devastated Mozambique’s economy and infrastructure left it one of the world’s poorest nations.

Ironically, Portugal’s PM, José Sócrates, has now requested a financial bailout for his own country, north and west of its former colony.

The country’s name was derived from Mossa Al Bique or Mussa Ben Mbiki who was a renowned, local Arab trader of yore. I must assume that had to be one in the same person.

Shrimp piri piri has been anointed as Mozambique’s “national dish.” But, what does that phrase connote in a world rife with regional and familial dishes, cross cultures, conquest, occupation and colonialism?

This piri piri swerves some from the basic, but is well worth the diversion.

SHRIMP PIRI PIRI

1/3 C extra virgin olive oil

1/2 t black mustard seeds
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
6-8 red bird’s eye chiles, seeds and ribs removed, chopped

1 t cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1/2 t ground turmeric
1 t garam masala
1/2 t ground clove
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t sea salt
Pinch of raw sugar
1/2 C apple cider vinegar

1 lb shrimp (16-20 count), peeled and deveined, tails intact

Fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Lime quarters

In a large, heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the mustard seeds and cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Add the onion, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion has softened slightly, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and chiles and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2-4 minutes longer.

Add the cumin, turmeric, garam masala, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, salt, sugar, and vinegar. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and, when the mixture is cool enough, purée in a food processor or blender until smooth. If necessary, add more oil to achieve the desired consistency. Set aside and allow to cool. Then, pour over the shrimp and cover in the refrigerator for a few hours or even overnight.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté, stirring and shaking the pan, until the shrimp are done, about 2-4 minutes. Serve promptly with cilantro and limes.

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