Great narratives about the evolution of American cuisine are cooked into the San Francisco fish stew called cioppino.
Although it resembles other fish stews from maritime cultures around the world (from Provencal Bouillabaisse to Portuguese Caldeirada de Peixe to Seneglese Thieboudienne), traditional cioppino always includes various types of shellfish in a tomato and wine-based broth.
A Brief History of Cioppino
This hearty dish may have originated in San Francisco, but it can’t deny its Italian roots. Devised by the Italian-born fishermen working North Beach during the late 1800s, cioppino was initially a catch all for whatever seafood was left over at the end of the day. It started as a dish cooked on the fishing boats themselves, and in nearby homes. But by the 1920s many Italian restaurants had sprung up around San Francisco’s wharves. One of them, Alioto’s, had evolved from a lunch-time stall to full blown restaurant with cioppino proudly on the menu. Alioto’s slings the chunky soup on Fisherman’s Wharf to this day.
How to Prepare Cioppino
At its heart, cioppino is a simple, even humble main dish. This recipe adapted from allrecipes.com is easy to prepare, but includes all the best seafood flavours.
3/4 cup butter
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
2 (14.5-oz) cans stewed tomatoes, chopped
2 (14.5-oz) cans chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups white wine
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp – peeled and deveined
1 1/2 pounds bay scallops
18 small clams
18 mussels, cleaned
1 1/2 cups crabmeat
Melt butter in a large stockpot with a lid, add onions, garlic and parsley. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft.
Add tomatoes to the pot. Add chicken broth, spices, water and wine and mix well. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Stir in the seafood and bring to a boil. Lower heat, then cover and simmer from 5 to 7 minutes (and until clams are open). Pour soup into bowls and serve with crusty bread.
When it come to fish stew, regional differences are deliciously diverse. But home cooks shouldn’t be afraid to improvise in favour of personal preference and what ingredients are available locally.
This Bouillabaisse recipe includes fish as well as shellfish, and vegetables that might not make it into a traditional cioppino. Other, more refined, recipes such as this one from the food site epicurious include luxury items like live lobster.
For a spicier variation on fish stew, many chefs turn to Brazil and Portugal. This variation on Brazilian moqueca from allrecipes.com features a single type of fish simmered in coconut milk. Others might look to South Asia where seafood has long been a diet staple — in Keralan Fish Stew, for example. Also known as moilee, this classic includes any type of fish with curry and coconut.
This variation from British chef Jamie Oliver is a less authentic, but simple to prepare take on Asian seafood flavours.
And for a trip to the true home of cioppino … Several restaurants in San Francisco besides Alioto’s serve authentic cioppino, including Sotto Mare in North Beach and long-running The Old Clam House in Bayshore.
In the hands of people who know the sea and its riches, seafood dishes evolve as practical and rustic celebrations of what they know best. Hearty and infused with Italian tradition, cioppino is the sea in a bowl.