Publication Date

September 19, 2023

Perspectives Section



  • Africa
  • World


Food & Foodways

By 2012, Zimbabwean and other African migrants in South Africa had been experiencing a slew of attacks for at least a decade. These incidents, often involving both physical assaults and the destruction of property, were a symptom of a broader xenophobic narrative of immigrants coming to “steal” jobs from low-income South Africans. Living up to its reputation for “cheeky” ads that comment on current events, the South African chain restaurant Nando’s released a commercial that year pointing out that most people living in South Africa were not “indigenous,” irreverently calling on everyone from Afrikaners to Indians to Nigerians to “go home.” The South African Broadcasting Corporation refused to air the advertisement, fearing retributive attacks on migrant workers; other networks banned it too.

Building with brown wooden siding, with “Nando’s Peri-Peri Chicken” sign. Building sits along sidewalk, with small patio and seating in front.

When you walk into a Nando’s from South Africa to the UK to the United States, you’ll find a cuisine rooted in African foodways, Portuguese colonialism, and the Indian Ocean world. Laura Ansley

“Real South Africans love diversity,” the commercial’s narrator concludes, a sentiment that reflects the cosmopolitan history that led to Nando’s popularity in South Africa and its spread around the world. Famous for its version of “peri-peri cuisine” featuring the eponymous pepper, the chain started as a single restaurant in Johannesburg in 1987. By 2012, it had 1,000 restaurants around the world, from Africa and Asia to the United States and the United Kingdom. Nando’s is far from the only restaurant to specialize in using the chili pepper, which typically comes from Mozambique, but it is the most global brand and one of the most popular.

The success of Nando’s restaurants around the world reflects the longer history of peri-peri cuisine and maritime connections in the Indian Ocean world. The cuisine blends different food traditions, ingredients available because of Portuguese and British colonialism, as well as precolonial connections between Africa and Asia. It was this engagement with a larger world beyond its shores that brought the peri-peri chili across the Indian Ocean to South Africa in the first place. The chain’s expansion across the Atlantic Ocean world was also a part of South Africa’s return to global engagement after apartheid ended in the 1990s.

The region that came to be the nation of South Africa has always been a critical outpost in global trading networks. Before European entry into the Indian Ocean world, monsoon winds enabled Gujarati and Arab merchants to sail to the eastern coast of Africa, setting up trade and migration networks with the Swahili coast that extended farther south. In 1497, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four ships from Lisbon around Africa to India and back again, a critical voyage in quests to find a trade route that connected Europe to the subcontinent and from there to the Far East. In the 16th century, Portugal acquired colonial holdings in today’s Mozambique and Angola. By 1652, Dutch colonizers had settled at the Cape of Good Hope; their descendants would come to be known as the Afrikaners of South Africa. The British took over the cape in 1806, and the Union of South Africa eventually became a dominion of the British Empire.

Engagement with a larger world beyond its shores brought the peri-peri chili across the Indian Ocean to South Africa

South Africa thus always has had an eclectic food history. Before European colonization, the San peoples were foragers. When Bantu speakers migrated to the region, they brought agriculture and pastoralism, including crops and skills learned from engagements in Indian Ocean trade routes. The food that most people eat in South Africa today comes from precolonial food traditions, including pap, a porridge made of maize meal, usually served with vegetables or meat stew. Cattle and meat are a critical part of wedding traditions, including at feasts and in paying lobola (bridewealth). Finding a climate similar to the Mediterranean, European farmers grew products such as grapes and wheat. Initially, the Dutch brought enslaved peoples from their holdings in Southeast Asia to work the land, many of whom intermarried with the local Khoisan peoples. Today known as the Cape Malay population, they introduced an Indonesian cuisine centered on fishing culture and spices such as nutmeg and chili peppers, now often referred to as Cape Dutch food. After the abolition of slavery in 1833, the British brought indentured laborers from India to work on sugar plantations in the Natal. Indian food is such a huge part of local food culture, from curries to bunny chow, that South African comedian Trevor Noah has joked in his stand-up about his expertise ordering food at Indian restaurants.

As these food traditions blended in South Africa, local populations began using the piri-piri pepper in their cooking. Also known as the pili-pili in the Congo region and peri-peri in southern Africa (the spelling of which comes from a Portuguese loanword in African languages), the pepper is a version of the Capsicum frutescens, which is genetically related to plants native to Central and South America. In English, it is called the African bird’s-eye chili. The pepper’s journey encapsulates the Indian and Atlantic Ocean worlds to which South Africa belonged: the Portuguese brought the piri-piri from their Latin American holdings to their settlements in Mozambique. It now grows wild across Africa and is produced commercially in Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The iconic hot sauce was made originally by mixing the pepper brought over from South America with other spices obtained from Portuguese trade in Asia, and was used as a marinade for meat, especially chicken. The sauce became popular in Africa before it made its way to Portugal, a circular route of food and trade. More recently, Nando’s helped the sauce become a household name.

British and Afrikaners were not the only Europeans to settle in South Africa, as Nando’s founding story illustrates. After World War II, migrants from Madeira made their way to the region, and after Mozambique and Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, many crossed the border into South Africa. In 1987, Robert Brozin, who grew up in a Jewish family in South Africa, and Fernando Duarte, who was Portuguese by way of Mozambique, visited a Johannesburg restaurant called Chickenland. They loved the chicken so much that they bought the restaurant and named it Nando’s after Fernando and his son of the same name, integrating into their recipes the beloved sauce from his European homeland made with African chili peppers. Alongside peri-peri chicken, Nando’s serves side dishes including mushy peas and chips (fries, to the American readers) like you’d find in the UK, as well as spicy rice, a dish familiar to Hispanic, Iberian, and African populations. For dessert, you’ll find the nata (custard egg tarts) developed in the 18th century at a Portuguese monastery. As apartheid wound down—the system of racial segregation predicated on white supremacy ended in 1994—Nando’s blended cuisine was positioned well to represent a new South Africa that embraced its diversity on a global stage.

Gradually, Nando’s expanded not only across South Africa but across the world. During apartheid, the United Nations, led by decolonized countries including India, implemented economic and cultural sanctions against South Africa. After the release of nationalist leader Nelson Mandela in 1991 and his election as president in the first democratic elections held in the country in April 1994, sanctions were dropped, allowing South Africa to engage in global trade and commerce once again. Nando’s became one of the first South African chain restaurants to break out into the world. Today, South Africa’s former colonizer, the UK, is Nando’s largest market. Most recently, the brand was featured as a fictional sponsor of the soccer team AFC Richmond on Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso (for which it was a real-life sponsor).

The popularity of the food served by Nando’s, as well as its affordability and spread throughout South Africa and the region, has reflected African, Asian, and Portuguese food traditions that were not erased with the establishment of Afrikaner and British white minority rule. But the public relations and marketing team behind the chain have not confined themselves to just selling their food. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Nando’s released an advertisement that read, “Turns out finger licking isn’t good. Rather reach for the soap,” a not-so-subtle dig at its American rival, KFC, which suspended its “finger lickin’ good” slogan in 2020. Closer to home, South African politics have been plagued by allegations of misrule and corruption since 1994, most notably under the notorious president Jacob Zuma. Nando’s has called out both African and global leaders in its “cheeky ads.” Several commercials have been banned in South Africa and beyond, including one that labeled Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe as the “last dictator standing.”

Today, South Africa’s former colonizer, the UK, is Nando’s largest market.

And so the history of Nando’s is a microcosm of the history of South Africa. The food traditions on which it relies are part of democratic South Africa’s integration with the world economy after the end of apartheid and sanctions. But the restaurant also engages with much longer customs of food preparation and trade that extend beyond South Africa’s borders. Today, Nando’s is particularly appealing to Africans living in the diaspora outside the continent. The chain has most recently spread to Texas, where there is a large African diaspora in the Dallas and Houston metropolitan areas. Its popularity across the United States might be because of its similarity to Hispanic cuisine, connecting the Portuguese empire to its Iberian neighbor Spain.

According to the chain’s official history, “Behind most things at Nando’s is an extraordinary story.” Its place in South Africa’s vibrant history is no exception.

Trishula Patel is an assistant professor of history at the University of Denver. Find her on Threads @trishulapatel.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.