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RE-ENVISION: Bouillabaisse

RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity. 

Some consider it a faux pas to visit Marseille without trying bouillabaisse.1 Commonly regarded as one of the most iconic, traditional dishes of Southern France, bouillabaisse originated as a “poor man’s fish stew” made by fishermen using bony rockfish they could not sell.2

Marseille’s gastronomy borrows heavily from Hellenistic traditions. It has been said that the bouillabaisse is heir to kakavia, a nourishing fish soup savoured by ancient Greeks who founded Marseille circa 600 BC.3 

According to the Michelin Guide Vert, the four essential elements of a true bouillabaisse are the presence of bony rockfish, the freshness of the fish, olive oil, and excellent saffron.4 It is commonly served in two different dishes.5 The broth is served first in a soup plate with slices of bread and rouille, a mayonnaise made of olive oil, garlic, saffron, and cayenne pepper.6 The fish is then served separately on a large platter, and must be cut up in front of the guests.7

Many of the ingredients in bouillabaisse are not native to Southern France.8 The evolution of its ingredients illustrates the history of the region as a seaport and trade capital.

Tomatoes were introduced to Europe in the 15th century after Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.9 Although unclear when they were first brought to France, Marseille was one of the first French regions to widely use tomatoes in its cuisine.10

In the 19th century, Marseille gained prosperity and established itself as an important seaport, driven by the rise of the French Empire and the opening of the Suez canal.11 Furthermore, tourism boomed with more upper class patrons. This led to a few key recipe refinements.

Firstly, the addition of saffron. Saffron was introduced to France as early as the 8th century BC,12 and saffron cultivation started around the 13th century.13 Its popularity only really spiked in the 15th to 17th centuries with the boom of the Mediterranean spice trade. Excess supply eventually bringing down prices enough so that it could be used in bouillabaisse as a common ingredient.14

Cayenne pepper,15 originating from French Guiana, an overseas territory of France on the northeastern coast of South America,16 was also added, reflecting the influence of trade on bouillabaisse.

Bouillabaisse is fundamentally similar in concept to any stew that uses abundant local ingredients, leftovers, off-cuts, and bones. White fish seafood stews strongly flavoured with spices are amongst the closest analogues.

Tomato based white fish stews such as cioppino, a stew created by Italian-American immigrants share significant similarities to the bouillabaisse. Both are composed of regional firm-fleshed white fish and shellfish, and have a similar herb and vegetable profile.17

Fish curries are also similar in concept, but have distinctive flavour profiles driven predominantly by spices, rather than fish. For example, Singapore fish head curry is sour and spicy due to the heavy use of tamarind; Thai fish curries are strongly flavoured by coconut milk and curry paste, which are in turn made from natives spices including lemongrass, chili, galangal.18

Bouillabaisse has built a reputation as one of the most quintessential French dishes. However, multicultural influences are evident in its ingredients and history, and it has undoubtedly evolved alongside its home city Marseille.

Annotated Bibliography

Beardsley, Eleanor. “Bouillabaisse: From Humble Beginnings To High-Class Tourist Meal”. 29 September 2012. 

This article provides insights into the historical evolution of bouillabaisse – from its humble beginnings to where it is today, bringing in real life anecdotes to substantiate arguments where formally documented literature might be limited. The article serves as an excellent introduction to bouillabaisse and initiates topics where one can delve further into to validate and investigate.

StarChefs, “The Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter”. Accessed 19 October 2019. 

This is one of the few easily accessible English reproductions of the Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter. It not explains what are the ingredients for a bouillabaisse to be considered as such, but also sheds light on the inherent cultural nuances that inspired the creation of the Charter. It prompts the reader to critically evaluate the importance of the bouillabaisse in the Marseille identity and what might or might not be endogeneous.

Sciolino, Elaine. “In Search of the Real Bouillabaisse, Marseille’s Gift to the Fish Lover”. 5 August 2019.

This article lists two widely held beliefs on the ancient origins of bouillabaisse, and also evaluates the current state of bouillabaisse in Marseille itself – including how it is regarded and prepared. It prompts the reader to question what it means, or takes, to create an authentic bouillabaisse, and also to gain an appreciation of its flavour profile without actually needing to eat the dish.

Stowell, Ethan. “Bouillabaisse”. October 2008.

This is a fairly classic bouillabaisse recipe. It provides an understanding of the ingredients – not only the fish (stated in the Charter) – and cooking techniques used for the dish, which are rather classically French, involving multiple rounds of cooking to delicately build up flavours whilst preventing ingredients from becoming overcooked. An understanding of how the dish is prepared and its flavour profile then allows the reader to identify what potential analogues.

Marseille City of Culture. “History of Marseille”. 16 December 2017.

This resource explains the history of Marseille – in particular the key stages of economic growth and development. When the history is evaluated against some factors mentioned in the other expository articles (for example, the tourism boom), the reader is able to piece together the inherent linkage between Marseille’s history and evolution of bouillabaisse.

Written by Tricia Lee. 


StarChefs. “Bouillabaisse: Are you serving the real deal?” Accessed 3 November 2019.

2 Berry, Mary. “Mary Berry’s bouillabaisse”. Accessed 16 November 2019.

Sciolino, Elaine. “In Search of the Real Bouillabaisse, Marseille’s Gift to the Fish Lover”. 5 August 2019. 

4 Michelin. Michelin Guide Vert -Côte dAzur (1990), p.31.

5 Child, Julia. The French Chef Cookbook. (United States, Random House, 2003).

6 Stowell, “Bouillabaisse”.

7 Child, The French Chef Cookbook.

8 Stowell, Ethan. “Bouillabaisse”. October 2008.

9 Morais, Rodolfo. “Tomato History: from the Andes to Europe and America”. 27 August 2017. 

10 Ibid.

11 Marseille City of Culture. “History of Marseille”. 16 December 2017.

12 Willard, Pat. Secrets of Saffron (Beacon Press, 2002), p.63.

13 Lachaud, Christian Michel. La Bible du Safranier. Tout savoir sur le Crocus sativus et sur le Safran, (Web archived, 2012), p.63.

14 Willard, Secrets of Saffron, p. 117.

15 Stowell, “Bouillabaisse”.

16 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “French Guiana”. Accessed 16 November 2019.

17 Stainbrook, Dorothy. “Cioppino vs. Bouillabaisse vs. Seafood Chowder: A Comparison”. Accessed 19 October 2019.

18 Schmidt, Darlene. “Easy and Delicious Thai Fish Curry”. 25 May 2019.