Ideally, you start by making a broth from fish bits and shrimp shells. You strain the broth and add the veg, and cook that. Then you cook a whitefish, or catch of the day, purée all this, then add the real fish and shellfish.
To serve, you spread aïoli (garlic mayonnaise) over toasted French bread slices, sprinkle with gruyère cheese, then place the bread in bowls and ladle the soup over.
Bouillabaisse is a lot of bother to make. It takes a lot of fresh fish, which is expensive unless you live by a port where fishermen fish, as well as requiring many different kinds of fish. You really have to order all the fish specially in. Nowadays the soup, even as made by French people, starts with water instead of a stock. Lobster in the soup wasn’t traditional, but it’s a nod to necessity, replacing as it does “cigales de mer”, which have now become quite rare and hard to get, even though without cigales de mer the soup isn’t truly authentic.
There are many strong opinions on how to make it. Debating Bouillabaisse is a full-time sport for Francophiles. One camp, for instance, says you should never use white wine, another says you can’t make it without it. Some say that the main fish should not be in the soup, but rather served whole on a side plate, and that the soup should be placed in the centre of the table, for people to dip bread into. Though this might be fine in Chinatown, it’s not very French restaurant style, and with the variety of ingredients and the work required, this really is a restaurant dish. Recipes have emerged that try to capture the dish as served at various restaurants by having you serve bowls of soup with the fish cut up and placed in the individual bowls.
Considered to have originated in Marseilles.
Part of the debate fun is over the origin of the word. Here are some possibilities:
1) an abbess of a convent in Marseilles: boulle-abbesse (the abbess boils)
2) bouillon abaissé “to reduce by evaporation.”
3) “Quand ça bouille, tu baisses” — When it boils, you lower (the heat). Old expression in Provence.