The cataplana, the utensil and the instrument (because it bears the same name as the cooked dishes prepared there) is now advertised by contemporary restaurateurs as a national culinary wealth, as well as the fish and seafood of our coast.
This steamed, cooked, made in it, with little fat and very slow, as if it were a hermetic steam, is perhaps comparable with some modern kitchen machines, such as low-temperature machines, and with better results. Or, in a more obvious way, with the already relatively old pressure cooker (in this case, at high temperature and high speed), invented by the Frenchman Denis Papin and introduced in 1679.
It is generally used for seafood, but sometimes also for various forms of pork (e.g. the “alentejana”, with mussels – actually reared in the Algarve, with the promise of being reared with Alentejo pork, and with A little Seafood seasoned to hide the taste of fish in the region, which is fed with fishmeal), onions, potatoes or other vegetables – stored there raw.
The Cataplana is a kind of metal pot consisting of two concave parts (as if there were two pots) that fit together with a hinge and usually also with two side closures. Originally from Copper or brass, it is today made of aluminum, but often with a copper bath to give it the characteristic appearance of this metal. There are cataplanas of different sizes, depending on the amount of food you want to prepare, and also steel, sometimes electric, that do the same work but no longer have the traditional shape.
Nothing is known about the origins of the Cataplana (there are no official historical records of its origin), except that it first appeared in the Algarve (long before this way of taking over it nationally). From this it can be concluded that its origin lies in the old Moroccan Tajine – the only difference is that it is made of clay. Therefore, all suspicions point to an Arab origin and to the Muslim occupation of the territory (between the eighteenth and thirteenth centuries), which would end exactly in the Algarve.
The truth is that no matter what material it is made from (both the national cataplanas from Copper, brass or stainless steel, as well as the Moroccan clay tajines), the use and the result are always the same. Maybe they use more stainless steel today just because they are easier to find, at affordable prices and easier to clean.
The restaurant Cataplana & Companhia in Campo de Ourique (R. Ferreira Borges, 193-A) has a section on the list dedicated only to these sweets for all tastes: e.g. monkfish, seafood, cod, grouper, royal (lobster), traditional (pork), rabbit by age or partridge.
But finally, we’ve already expanded the conversation a lot, and the ideal is to try the cataplanas in the kitchen and master the challenge of converting or rejecting them.
From handmade to industrial product
The modern Cataplana was repaired by a craftsman from Loulé, born in 1927: Ricardo Penguinha Guerreiro. It was he who made it more functional and hermetic – and at the same time could serve as a pure decoration.
He only worked with a hammer and a donkey (an instrument used to build the pieces) and a few other strange utensils. The traditional distillers for the production of brandy and other decorative objects were celebrated as cataplanas used in the gastronomy of the Algarve.
At the age of 13, he learned his trade with an uncle – and has been retired for a long time. Although he even worked in this craft, even after his retirement, he was aware that machines and industry would come after him.
The truth is that only a few decades ago, the region was known for its former copper craftsmen.
Originally made from zinc, they soon switched to copper, which allowed for better conductivity of the heat through the cataplana and gave a special taste that was unique for cooking. It is no coincidence that the culinary use of copper is already a millennium old and comes from civilizations such as the Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs.
Today, in Portugal, they are also Aluminum Presented.