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,