The cataplana is well known to have originated in Algarve, where it’s now seen as a symbol of the cuisine. There are two main theories of where it came from: the first and most widely spread theory is that it came with the Moorish occupation of the region back in the late eighth century. Some believe that it is the Portuguese equivalent of the tagine from northern Africa. The other, and less heard of theory, is that it was made by a Portuguese metal craftsman named Armando Luz that specialized in copper and stainless steel.
There are stainless steel cataplana vessels available, but the best, classic versions are made of hammered copper. Traditionally, the cataplana was made out of beaten copper in the shape of a clam shell, which made it easy for hunters and fishermen to fill it up with the essentials like garlic, onions, olive oil, and the vegetables of the season to take with them in order to cook their fresh catch right there over a fire, be it just off a boat or out in the forest. Copper conducts heat incredibly well, which makes it ideal for slow cooking on low heat. With two domed halves, the cataplana would act much like a pressure cooker in the sense that it would steam the fresh food inside, locking in the flavors and juices like a Dutch oven while cooking. The latches on the side lock the dome closed, emulating a pressure cooker. The cataplana is essentially an uncanny combination of slow cooker or Dutch oven, tagine and modern pressure cooker. This makes the cooking process fairly quick without too much extra effort other than throwing everything into the pan and letting it simmer away.
Nowadays, you can find the cataplana in many restaurants in Algarve as well as outside of it. Served straight to the table inside the uniquely Portuguese pan, the dish usually includes clams, fish, mussels and shrimp, but even that varies depending on the region. With its seafood concentrated robust sauce, it is wonderfully served with al-dente rice or boiled potatoes, and crusty bread.
The cataplana, however, isn’t just for shellfish. It can be used for vegetarian stews, chicken, rabbit and seafood rice (or arroz de marisco) and a variety of different fish dishes like a Caldeirada de Peixe (fish stew). Cooking in the cataplana makes the flavors richer by not allowing the juices to go to waste by evaporating into the air and instead continuously sinking back into the food and creating a luscious liquid in the bottom.
Seafood Rice Cataplana Recipe (Arroz de Marisco Cataplana)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 red sweet pepper, diced
- 5 large peeled tomatoes, diced
- 1 bay leaf
- Pinch of piri piri flakes (or red pepper flakes)
- 3 ¾ cups (890ml) vegetable broth
- ¾ cup (180ml) white wine
- 2 cups (475ml) Carolino rice (short grain white rice)
- 12 large whole shrimp
- ½ pound (225g) mussels, cleaned
- ½ pound (225g) clams, cleaned
- Salt to taste
- 1 lemon
- Fresh cilantro
Heat olive oil in the cataplana over medium heat. Add in the onion and garlic and allow to cook, stirring frequently, about 5-10 minutes or until the onion is translucent. Add the diced pepper and tomatoes to the pan and allow it to cook another 5 or so minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour the broth and white wine into the pan, stir well and bring to a boil.
Once the liquid has come to a boil, add in the rice and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low and cover with the top of the cataplana, allowing it to simmer for about 20 minutes or until the rice is cooked but still has plenty of liquid. Taste the rice and add salt as necessary.
Open the cataplana and place the shrimp, mussels and clams into the rice and cover again. Allow it to cook about 5-7 minutes or until the shells open and the shrimp has turned bright pink.
Squeeze fresh lemon juice on top and sprinkle with cilantro leaves. Serve immediately.