Origin and provenance
The Cataplana is a special and unique Portuguese cooking utensil whose origin is still little known as there are no official historical records of its origin, appearance and creation. To find the roots of the Cataplana, we are almost obliged to deepen the Arab influence from North Africa, which for well over 500 years (VIII century to XIII century) sought the great goals of the Algarve region and still today is well reflected in its culture and crafts and can be found again.
In North Africa we find some very old utensils where the cooking process is very similar to that of the Cataplana. This is in fact the famous “tajine” of the Moroccans, which is traditionally made of clay, but uses the same way to cook food, the hermetic steam process. In later years this cooking process was used in Cataplanas to cook food slowly and gently at low temperatures.
The Cataplana, as we know it today, was produced many decades ago in the southern region of Portugal, the Algarve. By experienced copper craftsmen, masters in the art of processing the material copper, for which the region was once well known.
A Cataplana basically consists of two half concave pans, connected by a hinge and two lateral locks, so that hermetic cooking of the dishes is possible. The Cataplana is really the forerunner of today’s modern pressure cookers, although in reality it is an old and primitive pressure cooker.
Initially made of zinc, Cataplana soon began to be made of copper (just like today’s), which was used by the old craftsmen and masters of the art of casting and drifting copper according to the old tradition.
The use of copper, apart from the excellent conductivity of heat in the whole Cataplana structure, gives the whole content a special, unique and incomparable taste.
This way and art of preparing food is already thousands of years old. It has been used by many great and ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs.
Cataplana is not only the name of this copper kitchen utensil in the shape of a shell, but also the name of the delicious dishes that are prepared in it. The Cataplana consists of two concave parts connected by a hinge which, with the help of two lateral closures, seals all the ingredients, preserving all the flavours and aromas and mixing them as in no other kitchen utensil.
The food is cooked hermetically with steam, slowly and at low temperatures. This method of preparation gives the dishes a unique and characteristic taste that you would like to repeat.
Originally made of copper, there are now cataplanas on the market that can be used in modern induction or glass ceramic plates.
Little is known about the origins of the Cataplana in the Algarve, but it seems that it originated during the time when the Algarve was under Arab rule. Its creation may have been inspired by the many shells that populate the Ria Formosa.
Since ancient times, we have had documents referring to the opening of a cave in the ground where the cataplana was placed on glowing embers and covered with sand. This type of outdoor kitchen is documented in historical records, and given the shape of the Cataplana, it is only natural that this should have happened.
Even today, this kitchen utensil is made by craftsmen who shape the copper with slow and precise hammer blows that give it all its charm.
There are countless dishes that can be prepared in a Cataplana. From all this variety of recipes, we can highlight the portimonene mussels, cataplana mussels, partridges with cataplana mussels, pork cataplana with mussels, monkfish cataplana… and we could mention many more.
In June the Cataplana has a festival in Portugal exclusively dedicated to it: the Cataplana Festival in Castro Marim.