The world of seafood stews is deliciously vast, and while every country—and city, and town, and chef, for that matter—has their own spin on the basic format, many versions of fish stew have a lot in common besides the obvious main ingredient. Two of the most similar may be French bouillabaisse and Italian-American cioppino, but while they are quite complementary, they each stand out on their own merits too. Here’s what makes them most alike—and yet unique.
While cioppino, a San Francisco staple, seems half a world away from Provençal bouillabaisse (which is most often associated specifically with Marseilles), they actually originate from points much closer on a map. Cioppino has its roots in Italian seafood stews of the Ligurian Coast region, like Livorno’s cacciucco. The idea behind pretty much all seafood stews is to use up whatever fish is most abundant in the area, so traditional bouillabaisse contains rascasse, a spiny, bony rockfish that was difficult to sell, so there was always plenty left over for the fishermen’s own stew. Since rascasse is only found in the Mediterranean, it’s often said true bouillabaisse cannot be made elsewhere; the prickly bottom-dwelling rascasse is considered of supreme importance to the dish. However, it may also contain sea robin (a type of scorpionfish similar to the rascasse), and conger eel, as well as other fish and shellfish like mussels, crabs, and sea urchins, even octopus. Cioppino also contains a multitude of fish and shellfish, which can vary with availability and the whims of each particular cook, but often features Dungneness crab, since those brawny crustaceans are so plentiful in Bay Area waters.
Both stews’ seafood menageries bob in tomato-enriched broths, but while cioppino may be considered a tomato-based fish stew, traditional bouillabaisse is built on fish stock with a smaller amount of tomatoes added in, along with other vegetables, like leeks and potatoes.
Cioppino also includes wine—red or white—while bouillabaisse, at least historically, does not (although plenty of modern versions do call for it, and it works beautifully). Besides tomatoes, onions, and sometimes bell peppers, cioppino is further flavored with garlic, oregano, thyme, and basil. Bouillabaisse has thyme and garlic too, as well as fennel, saffron, and sometimes orange peel, for an equally fragrant but decidedly different flavor profile.
While many versions of bouillabaisse, especially recipes made at home, are served just like cioppino, with everything delightfully crowded into one bowl, with crusty bread on the side, it is more traditional to serve bouillabaisse in separate vessels—the cooked seafood removed to a platter and the rich broth (plus its softened vegetables) boiled with olive oil to make it even more luxurious, then served on its own, accompanied by toasts spread with rouille, a spicy pepper-garlic sauce thickened with breadcrumbs. One could always mix the seafood and broth together if they wished, but there is something a bit more elegant about serving it this way. Cioppino is pretty much always served from one big pot with a little bit of everything dished into each individual bowl.
There are several theories put forth as to the origin of cioppino’s name—a popular urban/kitchen legend said it was slang for “chip in” and was so called because every fisherman would add a little of his own catch to a communal pot. In fact, it’s probably a derivation of Genoese slang for “chopped” and describes the way various fish and shellfish are hacked up before being added to the broth.
The origin of bouillabaisse’s name is thought to come from its preparation too: “bouille” means boil and “abaisse” means to lower, a seemingly obvious reference to the cooking method of boiling and then simmering the broth. Still, there are other sources that say the dish was named after an abbess who concocted the soup as a filling meal for days when meat was to be abstained from.
While parsing histories (of food, and other things) with anything approaching total accuracy or complete certainty can be as frustrating as wrangling the meat from the littlest joint of a crab leg—perhaps one plucked from a pot of soup—it is interesting to see how so many dishes diverge, even as they retain so much in common. So it is with bouillabaisse and cioppino, which have remained similar yet distinct, and have each continued to evolve.
Try any one of these versions, which range from the more traditional to fully modernized, and rest assured that in any case, you’ll end up with something delicious, and generous enough to share among a hungry group of friends or family.
Bowls of seafood stew brimming with clams, mussels, and crabs still in their shells are gorgeous and immensely appealing in a rustic sort of way, but it can be a messy business actually eating such a meal. This easy bouillabaisse only includes chunks of firm white fish that you can spoon directly into your mouth, no hands, forks, or knives required. Fresh chervil is added to the familiar fennel and orange flavors, but if you can’t find it, substitute parsley, tarragon, or a bit of both. Get the recipe.
Conversely, if you don’t mind really digging into your food, pile your soup pot with as many mussels, clams, and crab legs as you want and serve them still in their shells. (To have it both ways, you can cook the soup as directed and then extract all the shellfish ahead of time before adding the meat back to the pot—otherwise known as Lazy Cioppino.) This version is heavy on shrimp, but it’s all about using what’s freshest and most abundant—and what you want to eat—so feel free to adjust the specific ingredients while sticking to the same general quantities. Get the recipe.
If you want to get extra fancy, use lobster in your soup (either bouillabaisse or cioppino). This recipe takes it up another notch and uses lobster stock as the base of the broth, with a healthy pinch of saffron for a golden hue. Get the recipe.
Unsurprisingly, Julia Child was a big fan of bouillabaisse, and advocated for keeping it simple—and using pristine ingredients, which doesn’t necessarily mean terribly expensive. Ask at the fish counter if you can purchase a bag of trimmings (like fish heads and shrimp shells) to make your stock; it should be quite cheap, if not given away for free. And don’t skip the red pepper rouille smeared on crunchy toast for topping this lovely seafood soup. Get the recipe.
The anise-scented French liqueur Pernod lends a faint licorice note that echoes the flavor of the fennel already traditionally included in the recipe. Scallops and langoustines make for an elegant bowl, but use whatever shellfish you like, and whatever looks best and freshest at your store. The rouille (here, more of an aioli) for topping the accompanying bread includes a splash of Pernod too. Get the recipe.
If you truly don’t like the taste of fish (or are allergic), you can still enjoy the other flavors of bouillabaisse (fennel, saffron, orange) by making a version with chicken, which also happens to be much more affordable and easier to prepare—and just as appealing to those who do like seafood. Get the recipe.
You don’t have to miss out on these classic stews if you’re vegetarian or vegan either! This vegan cioppino replaces the seafood with two kinds of tofu and meaty mushrooms (if you love puns, please make sure they’re oyster mushrooms). It may not be exactly equivalent, but it captures the same spirit of ingenuity, adaptability, and bold flavors—and you can try similar things with the French flavors of bouillabaisse if you prefer Provence. Get the recipe.
Related Video: How to Make Gochujang Cioppino
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Martha Stewart and Kuechen Goetter.