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Cataplana: The traditional Portuguese cooking vessel explained!

Portuguese Cataplana recipe Since moving to Portugal, I have yet to set foot in the south. The Algarve and the summer season seem to be synonymous with its white sandy beaches, sapphire blue and aquamarine ocean waters, and of course, the food which is full of the “fruit of the sea”. The abundance of fresh seafood, fish and sun ripened vegetables is what I dream of when I think of taking holiday in the summer lands of Portugal. Alas, it’s a bit of a trek from the center of this beautiful country where I live, but that doesn’t mean there is no hope of having a taste of the Algarve in my own kitchen.

The cataplana is well known to have originated in the Algarve, where it’s now seen as a symbol of the cuisine. There are two main theories where it came from, the first and most widely spread 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, and it has more than just a similar cooking process; both dishes also have whatever is made inside named after the cookware! The other, and less heard, theory is that it was made by a Portuguese metal craftsman specializing in copper and stainless steel named Armando Luz (1927-2002).

Traditionally the cataplana was made out of beaten copper in the shape of a clam shell, this 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 game and catch right there over a fire, be it just off a boat or out in the forest. The cataplana would act much like a pressure cooker in that it would steam the fresh food inside, locking in the flavors and juices while cooking. This made the 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 the Algarve as well as outside it. Served 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’s wonderful served with al-dente rice or boiled potatoes, and crusty bread.

codandraystew2My first experience using a cataplana came when my sogra (mother-in-law) gently handed me a “suspiciously familiar” white box filled with a beautifully clam shaped cooker. The outside was made from aluminum with a non-stick coating on the inside. Not exactly traditional, but it’s just right for a kitchen at home.

From the information I gathered, one basically just creates a refugado (sautéed garlic and onion in olive oil) in the bottom of the pan then add in the rest of the ingredients, a bit of liquid (usually wine, water or broth, and sometimes a mixture of all three), bring it to a simmer over medium heat, clamp the top shut and allow it to simmer over medium-low or low heat for 10 to 30 minutes depending on what’s inside. This is truly one of the easiest dishes to cook in!

The more I worked with the cataplana the more I realized this dish 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.

I’ve included a few recipes for you to explore at your leisure. Mind you, if you do not have a Cataplana, simply use a saucepan with a tight fitting lid.

Seafood Rice Cataplana (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.

Portuguese Cod fish and Stingray Stew (Caldeirada de Bacalhau e Raia)

1 lb (1/2 kg)Bacalhau (salted cod), pre-soaked to remove excess salt
1 lb (1/2 kg)stingray fins
4-5 medium potatoes
2 cups ( ½ liter) tomato sauce
1 green bell pepper
2 large onions
5 cloves garlic
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup white wine
A small bunch of fresh cilantro/coriander
½ teaspoon black or white pepper
Salt to taste

Note: When pre-soaking the bacalhau, place the cod into a container of cool water and change the water every 6 hours or so to remove the excess salt. This can be done for 2 days prior to making the recipe in order to remove as much salt as possible before cooking. Do not salt this dish before tasting it at the end.

Cut the bacalhau and ray into 1 ½ – 2 inch chunks and set aside. Peel the potatoes and cut them into ¼ inch slices and set aside. Remove the stem and seeds from the bell pepper before thinly slicing and set aside. Peel the onion and thinly slice into half-moons, and mix all but ¼ of the onion with the pepper. Peel the garlic and thinly slice it.

Heat the olive oil in the cataplana over medium heat. Add in the garlic and ¼ of the onion and sauté for 1-3 minutes or until garlic is golden and onion is translucent. Layer the onion and bell pepper on top, some coriander, then add a layer of potato. Repeat until all the onion/pepper mixture and potato has been used, reserving a bit of the cilantro/coriander for later. Pour in the tomato sauce, wine and season with pepper. Close the cataplana and bring it to a boil.

Once it’s come to a boil, open the cataplana and add the fish to the pan, stir gently and cover again and reduce heat to low and allow it to simmer about 15 – 20 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Turn off the heat, open the cataplana and add the last of the cilantro/coriander on top.

Serve immediately with Portuguese bread.


Rochelle Ramos

Catavino, where we build custom tours in Portugal and tours in Spain. Contact us if you are interested in learning more! We'd love to make your dream trip a reality.

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