Thursday, September 24, 2009


Last night I had cioppino in a local North Carolina seafood restaurant. In a large deep plate, there was an abundance of huge scallops, shrimp, oysters, white fish pieces and crab chunks, basting in a tomato broth. I could not finish it though I tried persistently, hoping that my taste buds would eventually wake up. At the end, when the feeling of satiety became unpleasant, I gave up.

I had cioppino before and I liked it. I was introduced to it on the Fisherman’s Warf of San Francisco which is close to the cioppino’s birthplace. Cioppino was created when Southern-European immigrants recreated their local dishes from memory but using the ingredients and infusing the spirit of San Francisco Bay’s North beaches. You could call it an Old World dish born again in the New World. Now it is an autochthonous American recipe as the Zinfandel is an autochthonous American wine.

It started as a fisherman stew concocted of the remains of daily catch in a fragrant tomato broth. Except onion, garlic and olive oil, all other ingredients were optional. Cooking liquid was sterilized with wine, red or white, whatever. It is not known neither when this dish got its present name nor where from the name came. Most likely, it came from Italian Ligurian ciupin, a name for another seafod dish. Other explanations exist, like the urban legend that cioppino was named after fishermen’s calls along the beach to chip in the fish for the common meal.

In the meantime, cioppino has become a tourist dish on the fisherman wharfs of both coasts and a star dish in seafood restaurants across the country. As it was always made opportunistically from what was available, nowadays when it is sold on the beaches and in the plains far from the coast, variety is its main characteristic. This is a similarity that it shares with all other fish stews and soups. Eaters must be equally open to surprises regardless if they order cioppino or bouillabaisse. And, most of the time you will get the same dish regardless what you have ordered.

I like the variety but cannot forgive misinterpretations. For one, if the fast food means the food that can be eaten with one hand while teletexting with the other, modern cioppino could be that. However, if the fast food means something concocted in a rush, that is not cioppino.

All good recipes for choppino – that is to say, recipes that stay true to the original methods of cooking the dish – call for simmering the base sauce for at least 60 minutes. This is especially important for tomato based sauces. I like tomato raw and will eat a tone of salads or gazpacho. But an undercooked light tomato broth tastes like water in which a tomato salad cup was rinsed. This is what “fast cooking” does to a great meal.

So let’s get to an understanding: the cioppino is a fish stew which includes Dungeness crab and shells. It is cooked in a fragrant tomato broth flavored with wine. Most importantly, it is slow cooked and although it could be eaten as a fast food, one should be ready to sit down and enjoy it slowly and in good company. The large quantities that an honest chef offered to me last night cannot compensate for the absence of flavor. Chops and chunks of seafood may be chipped in from various nets but they must become one through the warm love of wine and slow cooked tomato broth.

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