When French restaurants want to impress, they deliver food beneath glinting silver cloches, which waiters dramatically yank away to reveal the meal beneath. In the Algarve, along the southern coast of Portugal, servers wow guests not with silver domes but gleaming copper cataplanas. The clam-shaped pot, like two woks stacked together, lands on the table like a shiny reddish-brown spaceship, and when servers unlatch the sides and flip open the top lid, it unleashes clouds of steam that perfume the room with pork, shellfish, garlic, and herbs. It’s a bit of a showstopper.
The arrival of a cataplana — the word refers to both the hearty dish and the metal pot it’s cooked and served in — promises an extraordinary meal filled with deep flavors only achievable through long stewing, intense heat, or, in the case of the cataplana, a bit of pressure cooking. The Portuguese clamshell is considered an ancestor of the modern pressure cooker, and it delivers tastes just as complex — with a bit more fun and drama.
The pot comes with plenty of lore too. Something resembling the cataplana shows up in Opera dell’arte del cucinare, the 1570 cookbook by Italian Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi, who served multiple popes. According to the guide Algarve: Cataplana Story, it could also be related to the stills used by alchemists in the Algarve under the Moors, who ruled the area for centuries. There’s even a theory that it originated with World War I soldiers who cooked with two helmets put together. Fátima Moura, author of Cataplana Experience, points to metalworkers in the 1940s in southeastern Portugal, who may have adapted the prussiana, a type of oven used over embers in the Beiras region in central Portugal. They reengineered the pots out of copper, improved the clasps that keep the halves together, and reshaped them for hunters to conveniently carry with them during hunting trips to prepare stews of game animals. From there it was a short jump to the seaside, where seafood entered the picture and the dish also known as cataplana was born.
Wherever it originated, “The cataplana was rediscovered in Portugal in the 20th century as a fantastic instrument for cooking food, particularly fish and shellfish,” says historian Virgílio Gomes. It hasn’t lost any of its luster. Whether you’re cooking seafood or meat or both, the Portuguese pressure cooker will wow any dinner party.
Why You Need One
Hunters traditionally used cataplanas for long, low-temperature cooking, essentially set-it-and-forget-it meals to eat when they returned from hunting. Modern Portuguese chefs use it for faster cooking, to maximize the flavor of very delicate meat, such as clams and fish. As they cook, juicier ingredients release liquid that turns to steam, which builds up in the vaulted roof, creating pressure that speeds the cooking process. Though there are modern versions in aluminum and steel, the traditional copper construction also heats up fast and retains heat, speeding along the cooking process, extracting extraordinarily light, graceful flavors from the ingredients.
The steam also condenses and then falls back on the dish, like a constant “aromatic rain,” according to chef José Pinheiro, owner of the A Eira do Mel restaurant in Vila do Bispo and one of the best cataplana cooks in the Algarve. “There is no dispersion of liquids, enhancing all the flavors. Everything is concentrated, and the aromas you get are incomparable,” Pinheiro says. “I love when one side of the fish is cooked in the broth that gathers at the bottom of the cataplana and the other part is just steamed on top.”
Although many people try to replicate a cataplana recipe at home using a Dutch oven or even a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, Pinheiro says that can’t match the flavor and texture created by a cataplana. “There are many ways to prepare the recipe, but I still think you have to respect the tradition of serving any of them in a proper cataplana. Otherwise, just cook a fish stew,” he adds.
And don’t underestimate the sensory impact of unlatching the clasps and popping the lid when dinner is ready. In this case the medium really is the message, transporting eaters on waves of crustacean-scented steam to the sun and sand of coastal Portugal. “When the cataplana opens, we are automatically transported to the Algarve,” Moura writes.
How to Use It
The cataplana works best over an open flame, which curls around the curve of the bottom pan. “Because its surface is not flat, it does not work well on cooktops,” Pinheiro says. “The traditional ones were prepared over a wood fire, but a gas fire works well — like with a wok.”
The most traditional method is to add raw ingredients in layers, before closing up the cataplana and setting it on the fire. First go the olive oil and seasonings, followed by vegetables like potatoes that release the moisture necessary to generate steam. Then come proteins: The most traditional are fish or clams with pork, though Pinheiro also serves chicken, partridge, and octopus with sweet potatoes (his signature dish). On top of everything, a bunch of herbs and spices, often parsley and coriander. In 15 to 20 minutes, the food is ready.
The one-step recipe is part of the cataplana’s appeal, but if you prefer more precision, the pot can also be used that way. While most cooks close up the cataplana and leave it to do its thing, Pinheiro opens the vessel at intervals during the cooking process. “I prefer to put the ingredients in stages, so that the cooking points are as accurate as possible,” he says. “It’s the most difficult way to do it because you have to know exactly the cooking time of each of the elements you are using.”
How to Get One
Today, the cataplana (both the dish and the pot) can be found in Portuguese communities all over the world. Kitchen equipment stores in many U.S. cities sell cataplanas, and you can grab one online at Amazon.
Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal. He is the author of the book The Food Revolutions.