Belgian Cuisine — Waterzooi: Flemish Fish Soup

One of Belgium’s most popular dishes is its fish soup waterzooi (recipe follows).  Traditionally made from burbot taken from the Lys and Scheldt rivers in and around the city of Ghent, to where the dish’s origins can be traced, nowadays the soup is made from any firm-fleshed white fish, especially pike, carp, cod, or halibut.  Variations exist that include mussels, clams, or shrimp, and the adaptation that replaces seafood entirely with white chicken meat is popular as well.

More Belgian dishes on The World Cup of Food:

As is the case with most words of Flemish or Dutch origin, we have no concrete idea how to pronounce “waterzooi.”  Turning to Youtube in hopes that someone else would say the word in some kind of convincing manner, we have decided that it is most likely said “Water Zooey.”  Our search also led us to Belgian operatic tenor Koen Crucke’s tribute to his favorite dish, titled “Woaterzeui:”

Unlike some other soups and stews that require an entire afternoon to make, waterzooi comes together in under an hour.  The fish or chicken is poached in a vegetable broth, then that broth is thickened slightly with egg yolk and cream and poured back over the fish to serve.  Like most situations in which a dish can be made with any white fish fillet, we chose Alaskan cod for its affordability, availability, and high quality in our area.


adapted from Saveurs du Monde, That Other Cooking Blog, Julia Child’s 1987 article in the New York Times, and the October 2005 issue of Saveur


For the court boullion (poaching broth):

  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
  • the green top of one leek, sliced
  • the leaves from one bunch of celery, roughly chopped
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
  • the stems from one bunch of parsley
  • 2 cloves garlic, gently smashed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • about a dozen peppercorns
  • about a dozen coriander seeds
  • 6 cups water

For the soup:

  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 small leek, white and light green parts, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 celery rib, diced
  • 2 1/2 cups court bullion
  • 3/4 pound Alaskan cod fillet, cut into about 1 1/2″ pieces
  • 1 c Sauvignon Blanc white wine (any dry to dry-ish white would do)
  • one handful parsley leaves, chopped finely

Before getting started on our soup we needed to start our court boullion.  The vegetables and water were dumped into a small stockpot and brought to a simmer over medium heat and left to cook, uncovered:


The broth needed about half an hour of cooking time, giving us plenty of time to get our soup ingredients ready.  First our leek was halved lengthwise:


…and rinsed thoroughly, spreading the leek layers apart to clean out any grit that might be hidden inside:


The leek was sliced thinly, which always takes up more volume than one would anticipate:


The remaining vegetables were cut into a small dice:


Our cod fillet was cut into pieces about an inch-and-a-half to a side at the thick end and a little bit wider near the tail to compensate for the flatter profile of the tail end of a fillet.  Smaller pieces than that, we figured, would overcook too easily, and larger ones would be too cumbersome to eat in a soup:

Not pictured: fish cut into pieces

After everything was prepped we still had a bit of time left on the court boullion clock.  A good court boullion is essential to good poaching since juices of whatever kind of meat or fish is being poached get replaced by whatever liquid it is being cooked in.  Flavorless water would lead to flavorless fish, which would be bad.

Once its half hour of simmering was up, the court boullion was drained over a bowl:


Our six cups of water had reduced to just under four cups, concentrating into a flavorful poaching liquid:

If you ever see a recipe that calls for exactly thirty-one ounces of vegetable broth, you know where to turn.

To build our soup, first the vegetables were sweated in about two tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat:


…until softened but not browned, which took about eight minutes.  The fish was added to the pot and immediately covered with a cup of wine, two-and-a-half cups of court boullion (the rest was refrigerated for another use), and some salt and pepper:


The liquid was still hot when it was added, so the soup came to a simmer very quickly.  Once simmering, the pot was covered for about twelve minutes until the fish was only just done (overcooking would leave the cod dry and mealy):


The cod and most of the vegetables were fished out of the soup (“fished,” get it?) with a basket strainer and placed in a bowl for the time being, where it was hoped that they would stay hot while we finished the broth:


Two egg yolks were dropped into a small mixing bowl:


…along with about one-quarter cup of cream:


…and whisked thoroughly until the mixture was smooth:


About one-half cup of the broth was slowly drizzled into the egg-cream mixture while whisking constantly to gradually bring the eggs up to temperature without curdling:


The tempered egg and cream mixture was then introduced into the rest of the hot broth (but crucially not boiling; again, we don’t want scrambled eggs or curdled cream in our soup):


The fish and vegetables were divided into their serving bowls and topped with the creamy broth.  Garnished with a little chopped parsley, our waterzooi was ready to eat:


The cream and egg liaison used to thicken the broth gave the soup a smooth, custardlike flavor that highlighted the fish.  The dish looked amazing without being at all fussy in its preparation or presentation; we figure that a cook would have to go to great lengths to make an ugly waterzooi.  It is a dish simple enough for home and elegant enough for a nice restaurant.


6 thoughts on “Belgian Cuisine — Waterzooi: Flemish Fish Soup”

    1. Hi Dora, thanks for reading!

      Printable recipes is a feature that’s on the to-do list for the site at some point soon. In the mean time, copying the text and pasting into Notepad or something similar would probably get you where you need. That’s actually what we do with recipes from other sites, and then print them and Scotch tape them to our cupboards in the kitchen. Works great!

  1. Picture looks like there’s a bay leaf.

    I hope this turns out to be better than the one I had at a touristy area by the Grand Palace where people harass passersby to eat at their restaurant (Rue des Bouchers?). Can’t wait to try this.

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