What is Bouillabaisse?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

Bouillabaisse is a traditional French fish stew that was originally created in the port city of Marseille. The word comes from the Provençal word bolhabaissa. The root words within bolhabaissa reveal the two main steps in creating the stew. The words bolhir and albaissar mean “to boil” and “to reduce,” respectively.

Orange peel is sometimes used to flavor bouillabaisse.
Orange peel is sometimes used to flavor bouillabaisse.

Although bouillabaisse is generally considered to be a traditional Provençal dish, its history extends all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. It was, in fact, the Ancient Greeks who founded Marseille over two and a half millennia ago. At this time in history, a staple Greek food was a simple fish stew called kakavia. Bouillabaisse has such a long history that it even appears in Roman mythology. According to these ancient tales, the Goddess Venus fed the stew to Vulcan. It lulled Vulcan to sleep and Venus went off to meet with Mars.

Garlic complements the flavor of bouillabaisse.
Garlic complements the flavor of bouillabaisse.

Bouillabaisse is an aromatic stew made with a fish base and a variety of fish and shellfish. In classic recipes, nearly a dozen kinds of fish are cooked into the stew. The most common fish in the dish are monkfish, mullet, and conger. Of course, many other kinds of fish can be incorporated. Bouillabaisse gains its rich flavor from vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, leeks, and celery, which are boiled and added to the stew. But it is the blend of herbs and spices that gives the stew its wonderful aromatic quality. Garlic, bay leaf, fennel, orange peel, saffron, and bay leaf all compliment the flavors in bouillabaisse beautifully.

The kinds and amounts of ingredients that go into bouillabaisse very by region. As the dish is so old, most chefs agree that it is impossible to know the exact recipe for “authentic” bouillabaisse. However, if you ask a Provençal chef about his recipe, he will probably tell you that he created the “most authentic” version. It is traditionally served atop slices of French bread. Sometimes, the bread is seasoned with a spicy sauce made of chilies and olive oil. This sauce is known as a rouille.

While bouillabaisse is a fantastic culinary treat, it is quite time-consuming to make. If the cook does not live in a place where seafood is plentiful and reasonably priced, it can also be quite expensive to make, depending on the types of fish and shellfish used. Because of these two caveats, the stew is often served when large groups of people can enjoy it together.

Bouillabaisse is a seafood soup with a rouille base that originated in France.
Bouillabaisse is a seafood soup with a rouille base that originated in France.
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments

anon990392

This is a very accurate description of Bouillabaisse. It is delicious to experience the dish in the south of France. I was lucky three years ago to actually eat it on the coast of Montreil - whether a genuine recipe I would hazard a guess as it was, much better than most British representations.

There is a particular type of bread used is called morette bread, normally just dehydrated - originally the fish stew was using up pieces from around the home. General rule of thumb is to ignore all oily fish, it doesn't cook at the right quality, and can often make the soup taste dry! Stick to your flats and round fish with some gorgeous shellfish and crustaceans!

lovealot

What do you know ..... there is a cast iron cookware that is specially designed for making bouillabaisse. It is called Staub bouillabaisse and, of course, it is handmade in France. When cooking with this pot, you need to use medium to low temperatures. Be sure to use wood or plastic utensils as metal ones might damage the pot. You need to wash it by hand. It has a cute little metal fish sitting on top of the handle.

Each of these pots takes an entire day for artisans to make using a sand mold. The bottom of the pot is almost flat, so the soup heats evenly and quickly. One drawback, the bouillabaisse pot is a little on the expensive side!

BabaB

Bouillabaisse is so delicious. I love it. Since it goes way back to the ancient Greek era, there has been plenty of time to experiment with ingredients and spices to make it a superb dish. When I have made it I have left out the saffron, since it is quite an expensive spice.

I didn't know that it was supposed to be served on top of slices of French bread. That sounds good.

There is another similar kind of fish stew, which, I think started with the Italians. It is called Ciopino. One main difference is that it is tomato based. It has a variety of vegetables and spices in it. And towards the end of a long cooking time, fish and seafood are added. Any kind of fish may be used, but commonly, crab, shrimp, clams, cod, and shrimp are used. It is served with French bread and is hearty and flavorful.

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