Bouillabaisse: King of the soups

Bouillabaisse, a fancy French word for fish soup, just might be the most delicious thing you’ll ever wrap a lip around.

No one seems certain about it’s origin, but apparently bouillabaisse was named in Marseilles, a seaport in southern France on the Mediterranean. As most things do, it started simple. Fishermen stuck with unsalable or leftover fish made soup with them. As more-exotic ingredients became available, and as more cultures added ideas to the pot, the cooking and flavor became more complex. Then the gourmets got into the act. What began as a simple fish soup became a meal served everywhere, from tourist-trap food stands to high-brow restaurants.

As bouillabaisse was changing, not everyone liked the change. In 1980, restaurateurs whose goal was to prevent the traditional dish from being debased by imitations, drew up a charter that prescribed the various fish and other ingredients. “Marseille Bouillabaisse,” the group’s charter maintains, “must consist of at least 4 types of the following: Scorpion fish, White scorpion fish, Red mullet, Skate, Conger eel and John Dory.” Lobsters are optional. Other ingredients listed are salt, pepper, saffron, olive oil, garlic, onions, fennel, parsley, potatoes and tomatoes. Rouille, a spicy sauce, is also listed as a “must.”

As an early-spring project, I’ve decided to make an old-style bouillabaisse, but with fish and shellfish available in Kenai Peninsula stores and waters. I’d also like to make use of some of the scraps and bones left from the filleting of cod, rockfish, halibut and other local fish.

When I’m filleting fish, I always feel a twinge of guilt about throwing away the half of the fish often referred to as the “carcass.” It seems like a tremendous waste. I’d like to at least make a small dent in that waste. For years, I’ve been meaning to bring home some fish heads and bones from Homer for making good a fish stock, for soups and stews, and this is the year.

As for recipes and tips, I’ll be using Julia Child’s. She lived in Marseille for a while, and learned how to cook the real thing. I’ve seen her make bouillabaisse on YouTube, so I know it’s relatively easy to do.

The most important ingredient is the fish. Most chefs who make bouillabaisse agree that it’s best when made with a wide variety of fresh, lean and firm-fleshed fish. In Southcentral Alaska, halibut, rockfish and Pacific cod would be good choices. Salmon, tuna and other oily fish aren’t used.

I plan to add a small sculpin or two, and serving them whole, just gutted and gilled. Their flesh is firm and sweet-tasting, and they’re easily caught from shore on many beaches on Cook Inlet.

Crab would add flavor and variety, but it’s cost is off-putting. I’ll be content with whatever clams and mussels I can scrounge up.

I’m looking forward to this project. Half the fun will be the hunting and fishing for the the ingredients, and I don’t even have to wait for warmer weather. The hunt is on.

More info:

For Julia Child’s recipe: (

Enjoy watching Julia Child make bouillabaisse: (

Les Palmer can be reached at

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