The Chowder Story


O’Connells Fish Counter in the English Market, Cork City


Irish Seafood Chowder

A lazy fishing boat catches the eye on the approach to Roundstone village in Connemara in the west of Ireland. The road rises past the pier. Opposite is O’Dowd’s seafood bar. The doors that front the ocean blue facade are narrow and tight. A squeeze gets you in.

Inside, the rustic brown space is just as narrow. A wooden bar stretches along the wall. Shelves display optics, bottles in a row. Taps hang down above the counter.

In a corner two tourists are consumed by a sensual experience. Slowly they eat small pieces of succulent fish from a bowl of hearty soup.

This activity is replicated throughout the country. Seafood chowder is ubiquitous, regarded as an old traditional dish, strange considering that it didn’t exist until the 1970s.

Fish merchant Pat O’Connell in Cork’s English Market remembers it being made at their stall in the 1980s for a television programme.

It was a quick and simple dish to prepare, with one exception.

The base for the soup was a fish stock, usually made from shellfish and assorted bones and skin – an overnight job.

That stock was unique to the individual cook. The fish and vegetables were always seasonal. Shellfish were preferred in many pubs and restaurants. White fish were usual ingredients. Smoked fish gave chowder an unforgettable flavour. Seasonings included fruit, herbs, spices and vegetables.

Suddenly a modern Irish fish dish that was popular, always evolving with thousands of variations, astounded everyone who tasted it.

It went by the name of chowder but it had nothing to do with the American tradition, which used salt pork, potatoes and hard biscuits/crackers in the recipe.

American chowder originated in Newfoundland, gradually making its way south, where it became popular in New England, New York and New Orleans, where it became a tomato soup with fish and vegetables, significantly different to the European version.

American historians trace chowder to the Bretons and their method of cooking fish and vegetables in large cauldrons, but admit that Basque, Icelandic and Irish fishermen were also known to frequent the seas around Newfoundland and trade with the native communities.

Ideas on how to make good fish and vegetable stew made easy conversation.

Chaudrée comes from ‘cooking in a cauldron (chaudière),’ the large iron pot used by fishermen from both sides of the Atlantic. Chowder is the anglicisation of chaudière and possibly chaudumel, the name given to the earliest fish stews in Gaul.

The classic chaudrée contains mixed seafood, onions, vegetables, white wine, butter or cream and herbs. Everything fresh!

Success depends on the amount of time the fish pieces are cooked. If they are overcooked the flavour is destroyed.

This is a clue to its beginnings in Ireland.

Pheno O’Boyle joined the Irish Seafood board in 1969 and was immediately set to work researching and testing fish recipes. Her job was uncomplicated: promote seafood.

She covered every corner of the country demonstrating recipes to home and pub cooks, and restaurant chefs. Chowder was her signature dish. ‘It was based on everything possible. Fresh local vegetables, onions, leeks, carrots, economical fish – smoked cod and pollack, rock salmon, sole and whiting, juices from the fish stock. Carrageen instead of flour thickened the chowder.’

Then Guinness realised that food would attract new customers into pubs. ‘They decided to push bar food. They put courses on, attracting the women of the pubs. They started competitions, the best seafood bar, the best chowder. The accent was on fresh ingredients.’

Coastal pubs like O’Dowd’s grasped the challenge and now chowder is the crowd puller. O’Boyle isn’t surprised. ‘Something that started in the 1970s is now traditional because we went everywhere.’

Irish seafood chowder compares with the best fish soups of the continent. O’Boyle’s only fear is that some chefs will forget that fresh, local ingredients and a stock made from fish bones are the secret to its success.


Atlantic Fish Soup

1 kg fish fillets (selection of brill, cod, hake, halibut, john dory, sole, turbot)
Stock from fish bones and head, bay leaf, two cloves garlic, lemon slice, onion, 
three sprigs parsley, 1 litre water, glass white wine, seasonings.
Prawns, handful, shelled and peeled
2 eggs
50 g cream (optional)

Cook fillets gently in stock for five to ten minutes depending on size and thickness.

Sieve the liquid into another pot. Boil and remove from heat, turning down to lowest setting. Pour in the cream and heat gently.

After two minutes whisk the eggs, add the lemon juice and pour into the soup, stirring until the egg mixture is incorporated.

Remove from heat. Place fillets in bowls, distribute an equal number of prawns, fill with soup.



Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir has made it her life’s work to put traditional Icelandic dishes back in circulation.

Lúðusúpa is one of them.

‘Surprisingly, there are not many traditional Icelandic fish soups; in fact, there is only one, but there are several versions. Other types of fish may be used (salmon or trout); sometimes it is thickened with a couple of egg yolks instead of flour, or with pearl sago. Some rhubarb or raisins may be added, in addition to or instead of the prunes. This is an old soup; several versions are in the first cookbook that was published in Icelandic (written in 1783-1784). The soup is tangy sweetsour, like the sea, but with the soft rich warmth of plums, like the earth. Outstanding in small portions.’

1 kg halibut or any fatty fresh fish, whole
1 litre water
15 g white wine vinegar
2 bay leaves
20 g butter (optional)
20 g flour (optional)
Carrageen, soaked in warm water (optional)
2 egg yolks (optional)
30 g pearl barley (optional)
15 g sugar
1 lemon, small, juiced
15 prunes, stoned
Salt, pinch

Place bay leaves, vinegar and a pinch of salt in a deep saucepan three-quarters filled with a litre of water. Bring to the boil, add fish, cover and reduce heat.

The fish is cooked when the flesh comes easily off the bones.

Strain the stock into a separate saucepan, add prunes and bring to the boil.

Keep the fish warm until ready to serve.

Thicken the stock with one of the four options.

Simmer for five minutes, add lemon juice, sugar and more salt if needed.

Remove the flesh from the fish, serve on a plate with boiled potatoes, the soup in a small bowl.


Mediterranean Fish Soup

800 g firm fish (selection of cuttlefish, eel, grouper, monkfish, octopus, squid)
400 g bonito/sardines, mackerel, filleted
300 g langoustines, mussels, prawns, shelled
500 ml olive oil
5 lemons, juiced
2 onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
200 g tomato, chopped
White wine, glass
Stock made from carcass, bones, shells and skin of selected fish
Parsley, for garnish

Cut firm fish into chunks and marinate in oil, lemon juice and two thirds of the minced garlic. Overnight in fridge.

Sauté the remaining garlic in sufficient oil, add onion, cook on a medium heat for five minutes. Turn up heat, add most of the tomatoes, stir and pour in the wine. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Season the marinated fish liberally with salt and pepper. Stir into the tomato mixture, then pour in enough stock to cover it. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer.

Shake the pan every now and again to loosen the fish.

After 20 minutes add the mackerel and sardine fillets, bring to a low boil and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Finally add the langoustines, mussels and prawns plus the remainder of the tomatoes and simmer for five minutes.


Ribarski Brodet

Ribarski Brodet was once the most celebrated fish stew of Europe. Anything found in the Adriatic – eels, grouper, hake, mackerel, mussels, prawns, red mullet, squid, tuna – went into this dish in equal portions.

250g hake/white fish, cut into small pieces
250g mussels in shells
250 g prawns/shrimp
250g squid, cut into rings, blanched
200g tomatoes, chopped
200 ml water
15 cl dry white wine
45 g olive oil
1 tbsp vinegar
1 lemon, juiced
1 onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Salt, pinch
Pepper, pinch
15 g parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a large deep saucepan, add the onion and garlic. Turn down heat, simmer until onions are transparent.

Stir in the tomatoes, add the bay leaves, lemon juice, vinegar, wine and water. Season, bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes until the tomatoes are cooked.

Remove the bay leaves.

Add the squid, followed ten minutes later by the hake, then the prawns or shrimp, and finally the mussels.

When the mussels open, check the squid for tenderness.

Garnish with parsley.

Serve with polenta.


Other Fish Soups

Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands Waterzooi/Waterzoï de Poissons 
freshwater fish, court-bouillon, bouquet garni, butter, celery, leeks white, sage, seasonings, cream
France Bouillabaisse 
fresh fish, shellfish, aïoli, croûtons, potatoes, sauce, olive oil, garlic, leeks, onions, saffron, 
tomatoes, fennel, orange peel, parsley, thyme, seasoning, warm water
France Bourride 
monkfish/white fish, aïoli, stale bread, carrots, garlic, leeks white, onions, 
orange peel, seasoning, water, white wine
Finland Lohikeitto 
salmon, stock from salmon bones/head, potatoes, onion, root vegetable stock, 
allspice, dill, cream, water
Greece Psarósoupa 
rock fish/bream/grouper/gurnard/red mullet/red snapper, carrots, celery, olive oil, 
onions, potatoes, rice, tomatoes, zucchini, seasonings, water
Malta Aljotta 
grouper/rock fish/flounder/halibut/red snapper, fish stock, garlic, lemon, marjoram, mint, olive oil, 
onions, rice, tomatoes, tomato paste, seasonings, water
Mediterranean Kakavia 
fresh fish, shellfish, fish stock, olive oil, onions, tomatoes, herbs, 
peppercorns, seasonings, water
Netherlands Aalsoep 
eel, black pepper, butter, capers, flour, lemon peel, parsley, salted water
Norway Bergensk 
Fiskesuppe (cod/coley, halibut, monkfish, salmon, fish stock, fish balls, carrots, 
celery, celeriac, parsley root, butter, cream, egg yolks, flour, wine vinegar, chives, sugar, seasonings
Russia Ukha 
fresh fish fillets, fish stock made with bay leaves, onions, parsley and peppercorns, egg whites, dill, 
parsley, seasonings, water
Scotland Cullen Skink 
Finnan/smoked haddock, butter, milk, onion, parsley, potatoes, water
Spain Sopa a La Mallorquina 
fresh fish stock, toasted bread, garlic, Madeira, oil, onions, parsley, tomatoes, white wine, seasonings


Other Fish Stews

Burgundy Meurette 
freshwater fish, bay leaves, butter, carrots, flour, garlic, onions, parsley, thyme, red wine, bread
Catalonia Zarruela 
white fish, shellfish, lobster, garlic, olive oil, onion, parsley, saffron, tomatoes, seasoning, 
white wine
Flanders/Netherlands Waterzooi 
brill, hake, halibut, eels, mussels, bay leaves, butter, carrot, celery, egg yolk, flour, lemon juice, 
milk, mushrooms, parsley roots, thyme
Iceland Plokkfiskur 
white fish, butter, cream, flour, milk, onions, potatoes, salt, pepper + rye bread
Normandy Matelote 
seafish + crayfish, mussels, oysters, shrimps)/freshwater fish/eel, croûtons, brandy/whiskey, cider, 
stock from mussels, fish stock, carrot, celery, onions, butter, bacon, mushrooms, onions small whole, 
clove, garlic, herbs, peppercorns, seasoning, red/white wine
Norway Plukfisk 
white fish, potatoes, white sauce, nutmeg, salt, pepper

This has been adapted from FISH CHOWDERS, SOUPS AND STEWS.