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Dictionary

Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse is a type of seafood stew that originated in Marseille, France. The name bouillabaisse comes from the Provencal Occitan word bolhabaissa, which means to boil and simmer.

The origins of bouillabaisse in Marseille

Bouillabaisse has its origins in Ancient Greece, where Marseille was founded in 600BC. Fishermen of the town made their own version of the dish, a Greek stew called kakavia. It is said that they started using less expensive fish to cook their meals, choosing instead to go for the common rockfish and shellfish that they caught and were unable to sell to restaurants and markets. These fish were bony and not desired by many kitchens. So the fishermen cooked them over a wood fire along with garlic and fennel. In the 17th century, tomatoes were added to the bouillabaisse recipe after they were brought back from the Americas. As Marseille grew in popularity, more restaurants and hotels started to serve bouillabaisse. Its recipe was refined, adding saffron to the ingredients and trading fish stock for boiling water. The popularity of the dish then spread to Paris, and eventually all over the world.

The three basic types of fish traditionally used in bouillabaisse are red rascasse, sea robin, and European conger. Other seafoods included are sea urchins, mussels, spider crabs, velvet crabs, langoustine, and octopus. Other fish used in the stew included mullet, monkfish, European hake, turbot, and gilt-head bream. The fishermen would simmer these fish in a broth of leeks, onions, celery, tomatoes, and potatoes. Bouillabaisse was then traditionally served on toasted slices of bread with rouille, a type of mayonnaise made from olive oil, garlic, saffron, and cayenne pepper.

What’s the difference between bouillabaisse and other seafood stews?

There are many factors that make bouillabaisse distinct from other fish and seafood stews. In traditional Marseille bouillabaisse, recipes call for the use of French provencal herbs and spices. Bony local Mediterranean fish made up the prime ingredients and were added one at a time into the pot. Bouillabaisse also differs from other seafood stews in the way it is served. Some traditions call for serving the stew in a pot with sliced bread and rouille, and then separately on its own platter. Others call for serving both the broth and fish separately and mixing the together on the table.

How do you make a traditional bouillabaisse?

Preparation of traditional bouillabaisse is as follows. The bony fish are first cleaned, scaled and washed with salty sea water. They are then sliced with the bone still on. Then, a casserole dish is oiled with olive oil before adding sliced onions, crushed garlic and quartered tomatoes. The vegetables are browned on a low heat for a few minutes, allowing their flavours to infuse with the olive oil. Afterwards, the sliced fish is arranged on the casserole dish. First, the biggest pieces are added, followed by the next biggest, with the smallest slices on top. Boiling water is then poured over the dish and it is seasoned with fennel, saffron, bouquet garni, salt, and pepper.

The bouillabaisse is then left to boil for around twenty minutes and stirred occasionally to stop the fish from sticking to the base of the dish. The rouille is then prepared by crushing garlic in a mortar and pestle, mixing it with saffron and an egg yolk, and blending it with olive oil. Potatoes are prepared for the side dish by being boiled in salted water. Finally, sea urchins are cut open and their gonads removed and added to the broth. The rest are arranged on a plate for serving.

How do you serve bouillabaisse?

Traditionally, the bouillon of the bouillabaisse is served first. It comes piping hot, along with slices of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and topped with rouille. The fish then comes separately on its own dish, with the potatoes.