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.
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.
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.