A Portuguese Dish that Unites—and the Pot to Cook It In

March 30, 2016

Upon seeing the restaurant, we were suspicious. The place, so highly recommended by our AirBnb host Ricardo, was pretty pedestrian-looking. The menus, tablecloths, and floors all appeared to be vinyl; Fanta cans littered the tables. Casinha do Petisco is not a treat for the eyes.

But when the cataplana, the steaming, spherical copper pot loaded with seafood (a dish that shares the name of the pot it's cooked in), landed in front of us, our faith in Ricardo was more than restored—we thanked him, out loud, at the table. He didn't hear us, of course, but I'm sure he knew we were grateful.

How could we not be? Savory pieces of pork and freshly-caught clams and prawns—heads and all—swam in the most richly flavored broth I have ever tasted. When I could face no more seafood, I took a spoon to the pot. Full of bay leaves, onions, garlic, saffron, and white wine, that sauce was too good for even bread to come between it and me.

Praia de Lagos: It looks fake but it's real. Photo by Annie Crabill

For a dish so ubiquitous in the Algarve (the southernmost region of Portugal, famous for its beaches), it's surprisingly little known outside the area. While paella was born in Valencia, Spain, it's now associated with the entire country of Spain, and tourists can find paella restaurants everywhere from Seville to Barcelona. But the cataplana hasn't seen the same sort of widespread awareness: While consulting several Portuguese cookbooks, I didn't see any mention of a cataplana—dishes that featured pork and seafood, yes, but no mention of the trademark pot.

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A 1980s New York Times article delves into the storied—if speculative—origins of the cataplana:

Part of the reason the cataplana is found only in the Algarve is probably that until quite recently communications with the rest of the country were poor. Before the proclamation of the republic in 1910, the Algarve was considered so remote that it was treated as a separate kingdom under the Portugese [sic] crown.

The narrow cobblestone streets of Lagos, Portugal. Photo by Annie Crabill

Aside from its remoteness, the Algarve is notable for the lingering influence of its 600-year period of Moorish rule (its name derives from the Arabic Al-Gharb, meaning "the west"). Known as an intellectual center, the Algarve was particularly famous for alchemy and liberal religious thought. Prominent Islamic scholars of the region worked to emphasize the links between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. There are some theories that the cataplana is a manifestation of these two ideas: the pot itself an alchemic experiment; the dish, combining clams and pork, a religious symbol. From the Times piece:

Even the idea of mixing fish and meat...recalls the interest the Algarve's medieval Arab scholars showed in finding a compromise between the great religions of their day...Although the word cataplana has no evident meaning in Portugese [sic], some scholars think it could be derived from an old word meaning forge.

In that spirit, back stateside, I amalgamated a couple of different recipes in the hopes of recreating the cataplana I'd eaten first. My first step was ordering the pot. If you don't want to order the special cataplana (the beauty of which is reason enough to track one down), you can use a Dutch oven with a tight lid—but it won't quite be the same (since the cataplana is an early ancestor of the pressure-cooker).

Photo by Libby Lyon

Initially, I had trouble finding a set of ingredients that I thought matched those of Cashina do Petisco. The Algarve is no longer a remote kingdom; it's actually now a hub of tourism. But Portuguese cuisine still isn't celebrated as widely as that of Spain. It has its champions, of course, and I looked to a couple of them (like David Leite and George Mendes) for inspiration.

But I kept coming up short, creating a perfectly tasty dish of clams and pork in a thin, light broth rather than the bold, rich stew swimming in sauce that I was after. I finally asked our Test Kitchen Manager Josh for advice; he suggested shrimp heads. That did the trick: I used heads and shells to make a richly flavored shrimp stock, and used that as the base for the stew.

I can't make the case for a cataplana being a highly versatile tool; I've joked that I'll use it to boil pasta, but really, it's a one-trick pony. But the value of this pot has nothing to do with its utility. Its worth stems from the memories it triggers of my weeks in Portugal, the meal I had in that unassuming restaurant, and the people I shared it with. And so, rather than being a fixture on my stove and fading into familiarity, it will be saved for special occasions, always accompanied by a story.

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Annie Crabill

Written by: Annie Crabill


Jan W. April 1, 2016
I will be in the Algarve in two-weeks, so I will see if the cataplana I try there lives up to your description. This is the first time I have been to the far south of Portugal so I am very much looking forward to it.

Also I should note that I highly recommend making sure your Cataplana comes from a foundry in Portugal - cataplana-style pans are also made in places like India which do a lot of copperwork but these items are often not built to be used for actual cooking, rather just for decorative purposes. It will not have the proper lining and it could also make a less than good closure when you are cooking and can cause an accident. If you are interested in buying a Cataplana outside of Portugal - Portugalia Sales in Newark is a recommended source that sells authentic Algarvian cataplana made in Portugal to be used for cooking. You can check them out here: http://www.portugalia.com/ or at their eBay store http://stores.ebay.com/Portugalia-Sales-Inc-220-Volt-Store .
Bevi March 30, 2016
Howard Mitchum's cataplana recipe is a classic, and the one I learned to cook.
Howard's cookbook is a masterpiece: http://www.amazon.com/Provincetown-Seafood-Cookbook-Howard-Mitcham/dp/0940160331