First things first: The rather unwieldy and difficult-to-spell term for the classic French seafood dish bouillabaisse  comes from two French words bouillir (to boil), and abaisser (to reduce).

The term appeared in English writing as early as 1855 from no less than the novelist William Thackeray, best known as the author of Vanity Fair. He described it as a “hotchpotch of all sorts of fishes.”

Like lobster and caviar, bouillabaisse was once everyday, inexpensive fare. Traditionally, Provencal sailors would boil up a batch of soup for their families with scraps of fish from the day’s catch that they couldn’t sell, a mix featuring, perhaps, a bony red mullet.

But all that has changed. Now, gourmets endlessly debate which expensive spicy fish soups are entitled to the name  bouillabaisse.

In the 1980s, a group of 11 Marseille restauranteurs created an official charter, specifying their rules. You can find their  definitive recipe on their website.

A photo of the Port of Marseilles, 
home of the iconic French seafood stew known as bouillabaisse.
At the best restaurants lining the old port of Marseille, expect a bouillabaisse that conforms to rigorous, and delicious, criteria.

Must your recipe include saffron and fennel? Yes. Can it call for white wine? No, according to Austin de Croze, a late Victorian food writer and member of the Marseilles group, though you’ll see wine in many a recipe.

The origin of a luxury meal

The Greeks have a version called kakavia, which they may have brought north when they founded the port city of Marseilles, in 600 BC. In another origin story, the Roman goddess Venus sent her husband Vulcan the spicy brew to make him sleepy and free herself to frolic with her lover Mars.

However it came to Provence, the simple dish has now become quite elegant in restaurants along the French Riviera.

The recipe at one world-class Marseille restaurant, Le Miramar, includes saffron and fennel, along with parsley, potatoes, tomatoes, eel and several kinds of fish. Rather than wine, chef and owner Christian Buffa uses the anise-flavored aperitif Pastis and mineral water. (Some recipes use Pernod, another anise-flavored aperitif, instead.)

The soup broth, bright orange from saffron, appears alongside croutons dipped in a garlicky sauce called rouille. And as a second course, your waiter will present the various fish, and proceed to cut it up and put it in the soup.

A photo of a wonderful bowl of bouillabaisse.
Nothing complements a savory bowlful like slices of crusty baguette. This traditionally frugal stews also provides a means to use up stale bread – just dunk!

Elsewhere, your second course might be the fish filets served separately with broth ladled over them.

The Marseille bouillabaisse charter specifies that your soup must include at least four species among a particular list of local fish. Lobster is optional.

Bouillabaisse recipes at home

The key to a beautiful bouillabaisse is a beautiful stock. One approach is to collect fish bones and build up your stock over time. Shrimp shells and lobster bodies produce rich stock. Combine them with aromatics like thyme, celery, carrot, garlic and peppercorns and simmer with water; cool, strain and freeze.

The ever-sensible celebrity chef Julia Child, in her classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” adds orange zest but not wine or an aperitif to her bouillabaisse recipe. She granted her many devotees permission to use fish not native to the French Riviera.

You need “six or more varieties of fresh fish,” she said, “which is why a bouillabaisse is at its best when made for at least six people. Some of the fish should be firm-fleshed… like  halibut, eel, and winter flounder and some tender and flaky like hake, baby cod, small pollock, and  lemon sole.

“Shellfish are neither necessary nor particularly typical, but they always add glamor and color if you wish to include them.”

Scallops, shrimp , and lobster all appear in various bouillabaisse recipes.

While the dish is definitely a project, it all comes together in one large stockpot. If you don’t have a good stock, consider making your bouillabaisse in a slow cooker, adding the fish and shellfish, if any, in the last half hour to avoid overcooking.

This dish doesn’t have to be as hard as it sounds, and one fragrant yellow spoonful will evoke the Mediterranean sun. If you veer from the official rules, you might regain French approval by playing Edith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” as you serve your guests.


Temma Ehrenfeld has been a writer for more than 30 years. Her novel "Morgan" is available at bookstores.

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