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Bouillabaisse Explained: Five Questions for Adam Gopnik

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Bouillabaisse, the one-pot fish stew from Southern France, has been cropping up on some of New York's finest menus lately, returning cachet to the peasant's soup. As with any simple dish, however, confusion abounds when it comes to how to create an elegant final product that transcends its humble origins. I asked New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik, who lived in France and has written about his love of French cuisine, to expound on the finer points of a true bouillabaisse.

Savoy Restaurant will be hosting a bouillabaisse dinner featuring Adam Gopnik further discussing the dish on Tuesday, September 28.

HP: Bouillabaisse seems to have recently captured the popular imagination, popping up on the menus of some of the country's best restaurants. Why do you think the dish has developed currency right now?

Perhaps one-pot dishes capture contemporary imaginations because they exude a sense of peasant rectitude -- trash fish used honestly, soup supplementing fishy flavors, bread-and-broth extending expensive protein -- while still seeming elegant enough to pay for when you're out and offer to others when you're not. It is part of the food fashion of our time that we want to be good simple folk while still being classy, complicated diners. Certainly all the classic single-pot meals -- cassoulet and choucroute from the French tradition alone, for instance -- seem to have a new currency.

And they're fun to make and lovely to put together! The most thrilling moments in cooking are often the sorting and assembling moments, when all the beautiful food gleams on the counter, still in its naked state -- and nothing is prettier than the salty gray of shrimp, the pale, transparent white of fish, with the orange waiting to be zested and the little container with its few threads of saffron nearby. The best things can be contemplated in their preexisting states, before they even become material, as Plato I think said about the soul, in some Greek cookbook or other.

HP: Would you weigh in on the origins of the word bouillabaisse? I've heard it attributed to everything from bouillon abaissé (to reduce by evaporation) to bouille-abbesse (the abbess' boil).

I hesitate to weigh in on a subject in which I bring no weight to bear but -- Waverly Root tells us, and the culinary dictionaries all seem to agree, that it's a combination of two words: the first half meaning 'to boil' and the second half to 'lower', or simmer; grandchildren of the words are still used in French, and the idea makes sense, since peasant dishes always tend to be descriptive of the techniques used to make them: think of hot pot, or tagine, or pot roast. Or think of cholent, the Sephardic Jewish version of cassoulet; it means simply chaud, hot, and lent, slow: the hot and slow dish. Obviously with bouillabaisse, you boil first to get the fish cooked through, and then simmer after to be sure that the flavors, as Huck Finn would say, swap around.

More interesting to me than the origin of the word is the odd history of its "chic". In the late 1780's, the world's first real restaurants were beginning to cluster around the Palais Royale in Paris, in large part because the inventor of radical chic, Philippe Egalitie (Equality Phil), had rented out space in his palace to merchants. One of the most prized of these was a restaurant called the Trois Freres Provencal -- the Three Brothers from Provence -- which specialized in pot-au-feu and bouillabaisse. Apparently, the Provencal fish stew was then what tagine and cous-cous are now -- the cool/chic exotic dish -- Provence was an exotic distance away then) which the sophisticates in the big city showed their sophistication by enjoying it. We sometimes think that the rage for peasant fare is new; actually, it's one of the oldest elements in urban dining. The food culture of France was cosmopolitan before it was national.

HP: There's a lot of contention over what makes a "real" bouillabaisse. What do you think the key ingredients are? Is it a matter of spicing, or presentation (fish served in/out of the broth, for example)?

I am one of those greedy people who think that arguments about what "really" ought to go into cassoulet or bouillabaisse or for that matter chili con carne are a distraction from eating enough of them. Certainly, as Waverly Root and A.J. Liebling both insisted, the classic dish of the Marseille docks was usually built around a base of red rascasse, the scorpion-fish that we can't get here. But I am inclined to think that this is as much name-magic as food-necessity: who wouldn't want a base of scorpion fish in his stew? (It's almost as exciting as the idea of poisonous Japanese blowfish in one's sushi.) In truth, what one wants in bouillabaisse, as in life, is not the one true thing but the mix of many good things, with all of it built around an honest and savory base. There's a moment in one of the James Bond books where his taxi-driver in Marseilles (he's there for a conference with the Union Corse and to get engaged to the boss's daughter) tells him that you can't get decent bouillabaisse anymore but that it doesn't matter, since garlic is all that counts, and "little pieces of a woman" would taste good in that. I thought that was a thrilling sentence when I was eleven.

I know that the version my friend Peter Hoffman will be constructing for the feast I'm co-hosting with him this week at his Savoy restaurant will have a base of boiled crab -- a deep and luxurious underpinning, delicate enough for James Bond's fiancé, and rough enough for James Bond's driver.

HP: The seafood industry has recently come under fire for unsustainable practices. Do you have any advice for home cooks trying to make an eco-friendly bouillabaisse?

The mysteries of the new "made" fish are perplexing, aren't they? If we eat cultivated salmon, we are committing an eco-sin; and if we eat wild salmon, we commit the eco-sin of reducing the population. Eco-sin, like all other sins, seems inescapable. I do think that the one wise decision is to use "trash fish" -- throwaway fish -- in your fish stew. They're cheap and available, and moving us off the salmon-tuna-swordfish over-fished axis is sane, at least. Anyway, as the taxi-driver said, everything tastes good with enough garlic in it.

HP: A.J. Liebling wrote in the 1960's about searching for bouillabaisse in New York and being told it could only be "authentic" in France. Do you think an authentic bouillabaisse is possible in the US, and if so, where can we find the best example?

The idea that "authentic" anything means French something or other is a touching one, and was part of Liebling's moral taste for French cooking, which I share. But the truth, which I think he would happily concede, is that every people and region near the sea have their own fish stew and one is, or can be, as good as next. We have cioppino out in California, zuppa de pesce in Provincetown, and various virtuous, Sunday night New England concoctions, needing only an infusion of immigrant garlic to be made food worth eating. My own family-friendly favorite recipe for the dish is the hybrid " New England Bouillabaisse" from Gordon Hammersley's fine Bistro Cooking At Home cookbook, where he daringly dispenses with a fish based-broth altogether, and builds a simpler, quicker soup base of tomatoes, onions, fennel and leeks. It's delicious, easy to make, seems to delight guests -- I say seems because you never really know -- and combines Provencal richness with New England Puritan efficiency. A better combination than its opposite.

Around the Web

Bouillabaisse - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bouillabaisse Recipe | Simply Recipes

Bouillabaisse Recipe : Emeril Lagasse : Food Network

Did You Know: Food History - Origin of Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse Recipe at Epicurious.com

Recipe Redux - Bouillabaisse, 1904 - NYTimes.com

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