It is tempting to dismiss the cataplana as a touristy gimmick. The globe-shaped copper (or, increasingly, stainless steel) cooking utensil with a hinged lid is sold in every gift shop in the Algarve and I wonder how many have been bought by sun-drunk tourists and are now stored at the back of cupboards unused and forgotten.
However, far from being something just for the tourists, the cataplana is still widely used in cooking in the Algarve; most Portuguese restaurants proudly include a cataplana dish on their menu and it is understandable why both the dish and cooking utensil have remained a staple in Algarvean homes since Moorish times. It is believed that the cataplana pan was used by fishermen and hunters in the past. They would fill the pan with chopped vegetables before leaving home and once they had caught some fish or killed an animal they would add the fish or meat to the pan and cook it over a fire for their lunch. Nowadays, apart from not having to hunt your own food, the principle hasn’t changed. The two most popular cataplana dishes on restaurant menus are cataplana de peixe e marisco (fish and shellfish cataplana) and cataplana de carne de porco com amêijoas (pork with clams cataplana), but any kind of fish, meat or vegetable can be cooked in the cataplana, which due to the tight fitting of the two halves, works like a pressure cooker, steam-cooking the food in a short amount of time. Most recipes recommend a cooking time of 15 to 20 minutes and the unique shape of the pan allows it to be turned over on the flame during the cooking process, ensuring everything is evenly cooked. All cataplana dishes use the same basic ingredients of onion, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, red and green peppers, white wine, coriander, bay leaf, chilli and salt and pepper and then the fish, shellfish or meat is added. The fish and shellfish cataplana usually includes clams and prawns (and other available shellfish) added to meaty white fish such as monkfish, skate, dogfish or grouper (basically whatever fish is available that day) and sometimes potato.
The pork with clams cataplana usually has prawns and sausage or chouriço added to it and sometimes sweet potato.
Most restaurants serve the cataplana as a meal for two or more people to share (as it would be in the family home), but I have noticed several restaurants in the tourist areas of the Algarve offering cataplanas for one person. It is often accompanied by rice, but just as often with bread. The dish is brought to the table in the cataplana pan, which is guaranteed to make everyone else in the restaurant turn and look. Then notice how your waiter or waitress serves it onto the plate with pride and delight.