Cataplana – Algarve’s traditional dish

typical algarvean cataplana on table with seafood ready to serve

Sun, sea and seafood are synonymous with Algarve. 

With its copper shell-like shape and ingredients from the sea or land, the cataplana really does represent the region as its traditional dish.

Cataplana can be made using fish or meat with the basics found in most pantries. Olive oil, white wine, garlic, onions, green/red peppers, tomatoes, fresh coriander or parsley are common enough ingredients and by simply adding your preferred protein you can look forward to a flavoursome meal.

Cataplana is also the name of the pan the dish is cooked in. Originally made of zinc, today you will find that they are mostly made of beaten copper or stainless steel.

Once you have sautéed, layered in the ingredients and added any liquid, the lid is closed which seals the pan and allows the ingredients to steam. The cataplana pan acts as a pressure cooker, locking in the flavours and smells! 

Vegetarian dishes, caldeirada (stew) and arroz de marisco (fish rice) are all tasty dishes that can be made using the cataplana – it’s just your imagination that will limit the delicious meals this pan can be used for. Even desserts can be made in it.

The history of cataplana is difficult to trace however it is believed that the idea originated from the Moors. The Moroccan tagine is a similar utensil in as much it cooks hermetically at a low temperature, albeit it is made from clay rather than metal.

Local historical documents mention the building of fires in small pits and a utensil, that could very well be a cataplana pan, placed on top of the burning embers then covered in sand. A cooking method used in Azores still today, although not with the cataplana.

It is also believed that those working at sea or on the land would take their pan ready filled with herbs, vegetables etc, later adding their catch to cook and eat whilst they were away from home.

Just to show you how simple a seafood cataplana is to make, we have included a recipe below. So when next in Algarve, or even surfing the net, make sure you buy yourself a cataplana pan.

Seafood cataplana – serves 4

1 bay leaf 
Bunch of parsley, chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed/chopped finely
100ml olive oil
100g, onions thinly sliced
40g green pepper sliced thinly
150g small clams, in the shell
150g raw prawns, shelled
150g tomatoes, skinned and chopped (fresh are best but tinned will work also)
200g potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
200g fillet of monkfish or similar white fish
200g fillet of snapper or similar fish (you can double up on the white fish if you prefer)
50g presunto soaked in cold water
50ml white wine
Salt to taste

Best served with crispy bread

Heat the olive oil in the cataplana and sauté half the onion and pepper. Add the potatoes and garlic. Stir and cook for a minute or two.
Add the fish together with the wine and a little salt to taste.

Cover with the rest of the onion and pepper together with the tomatoes, bay leaf and parsley. 

Finally cover with the presunto, prawns and clams.

Close the cataplana and simmer for 20 minutes.

Best served with crispy bread

For other recipe ideas using the cataplana pan click here

You will find more easy-to-make Portuguese recipes ideas on our news page such as Caldo Verde (a heart-warming soup from the Minho region), Francesinha (a filling hot sandwich from Porto), Jardineira (beef stew) and Bacalhau de Pascôa (baked fish and potato dish).

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