Along the southern coast of Portugal, bathed by the Atlantic Ocean, the cataplana is recognised as an icon of the local cuisine.
Little is known about the origins of the cataplana because there are few historical records about its creation. Many believe that the cataplana can be traced to the eighth-century Moorish occupation and a concept not unique to the clamshell pan. Slow steam cooking at low temperature in a sealed container, as is the case with the cataplana, is also found in another cooking vessel, the clay tagine, traditionally used by some North African peoples.
It’s imagined that fishermen, hunters, and nomads filled their cataplana pans with garlic, onions, herbs, vegetables, and olive oil and sealed them shut for transport as they began their working day. Later, adding their catch to the pan, they cooked their cataplana over glowing embers as the sun began to set.
The airtight cataplana pan acts much like a pressure cooker. Aromatics are sautéed in the bottom of the pan, ingredients are layered, liquid is added, and the pan is sealed shut with its attached hinges and sidelocks. The pan is then placed on a heat source, in essence steaming the contents, locking in flavour, and delivering a moist, delicious meal.
Chances are you already have everything you need to make cataplana in your kitchen:
- olive oil
- dry white wine
- green or red pepper
- tomatoes, fresh or canned
- bay leaf
- dried piri-piri (or other hot chili pepper)
- sea salt/pepper
Cataplanas can be made with fish and/or meat, for the vegetarian or vegan, and is even surprisingly adept at desserts. Once you learn the simple technique, your cataplana creations will be limited only by your imagination.
Cataplana as cookware
This delightful piece of Portuguese cookware comes in a variety of sizes and materials. Traditional cataplana pans (originally made of zinc but no longer) are made of copper, a wonderful heat distributing metal, hammered for beauty and craftsmanship, and lined with tin. You can also find stainless steel cataplanas, also a pleasure to cook with.
Be cognizant of your cooktop when choosing a cataplana, making sure it’s compatible. For example, copper cannot be used on induction cooktops.
Ranging in size from a small single-serving 9cm to a 24cm easily feeding two to a crowd-sized 86cm (not a typo!), be generous when choosing a size. If you’re not sure, go one larger than you think you need. To a certain extent, you can reduce the ingredients to feed fewer but cannot effectively cook more than your cataplana is designed to hold.
Depending on where and from whom you buy your cataplana cooking vessel, expect to spend somewhere starting around €32 for an 18cm pan to €90 for a 36cm version. You can also purchase a cork trivet allowing you to present and serve your gorgeous cataplana at the table.
More to relish
If you are fortunate enough to be in the Algarve during the Castro Marim Festa Cataplana, make a point of enjoying the culture, locally harvested sea salt, and lip-smacking cataplana.
Hungry for more? Relish Portugal, in partnership with illustrator Wendy Beugels, is tickled to serve up a feast for the eyes: a “Happy Watercolor” Cataplana ‘Zine featuring gorgeous kitchen art, the cataplana story, and a traditional, lushly illustrated recipe. On sale now, visit RelishPortugal.com for details.
If this story whets your whistle, subscribe to Relish Portugal, the free, quarterly, online, English language food and culture magazine for Portugal lovers everywhere at RelishPortugal.com.