The southern French city of Marseille has a local culinary culture that brings together traditions and recipes from Provence, North Africa, and other Mediterranean cultures. While it's not as reputed for its food as Paris or Lyon, anyone with a curious palate should spend some time tasting some of the city's typical dishes. Even vegetarians can find plenty of options since the regional cuisine is heavily focused on fresh vegetables. Here are some of the top specialties to try on your next visit to the ancient port city.
Widely considered to be the culinary emblem of Marseille, this delicately spiced fish stew is native to the port city. Made with the catch of the day (or several), the stew is slow-cooked in a bouillon packed with herbs from Provence, and laced with extra-virgin olive oil, saffron, and seasonal vegetables. Most restaurants serve it with a hunk of fresh baguette, accompanied by a spicy spread called rouille. To taste some of the best, head to the Old Port and choose one of the many traditional restaurants facing the Mediterranean.
Aioli with vegetables and fish
This healthy yet flavorful starter is a familiar sight in Marseille, and around Provence, and is especially popular in late summer. A heaping platter of boiled vegetables—often carrots, potatoes, artichokes, and cauliflower—is accompanied by boiled eggs and some sort of seafood (usually poached fish) or escargot. Aioli (a rich garlic mayonnaise) is the real star of the show here, though. The oddly refreshing dish can be enjoyed at the beginning of a larger meal, or as a light lunch, accompanied by a glass of crisp rosé wine from Provence. In Marseille, good places to try "Le Grand Aïoli" include Au Coeur du Panier and Bistrot Haxo.
Pastis de Marseille
This iconic anise-flavored liqueur from Marseille is a staple of hot summer days spent outside, especially during a game of pétanque. Mixed with ice-cold water and served in tall glasses (with or without ice), pastis is well-known for being easy to drink. In addition to licorice root, Provence herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, verbena, and lemon balm are added to the mix, giving the drink its distinctive flavor.
Pastis is such a strong tradition in Marseille that you'll find it served in the majority of bars, brasseries, and restaurants around the city. It's best enjoyed as a casual aperitif, perhaps accompanied by olives, anchovy paste on bread, or other typical pre-dinner snacks.
La Soupe au Pistou
This traditional Provencal soup is somewhat similar to Italian minestrone, but is loaded with fresh basil, which is why its name sounds so close to "pesto". It's also made with high-quality olive oil, plenty of garlic and onions, white beans, summery vegetables such as peppers and zucchini, and (sometimes) potatoes. Filling and healthy, pistou is a light and delicious starter or main meal, and another good choice for vegetarians.
Restaurants in Marseille that are well-known for their excellent pistou soup include waterfront restaurant Le Coin Provencal and Chez Ida.
This delightfully rich bread, full of olive oil, is often considered the Provencal equivalent of Italian focaccia. Baked in a variety of shapes and flavors, from sweet to savory, fougasse is most commonly laced with olives, onions, anchovies, herbs, and/or tomatoes.
It can be enjoyed as a sandwich, filled with cheeses and/or meats, or torn in thick chunks and dipped in one of Marseille's traditional soups. And if you have a sweet tooth, try the "Pompe a l'huile"—a fougasse bread flavored with orange blossom, lemon or orange zest, and typically served as a sweet treat during the Christmas season.
To taste some of the best fougasse in Marseille, head to the Dame Farine bakery or to Hat's Boulangerie.
Anchoiade (Anchovy Paste) and Olive Tapenade
These two traditional Provencal spreads are delicious on a thick slice of fougasse bread (see above) or accompanied by an assiette de crudités (raw vegetable platter). Anchoiade, as you might guess, is an anchovy-based paste or sauce made with fresh fish filets, olive oil, fresh garlic, and herbs. Tapenade, made from black olives, olive oil, herbs, and capers, is a naturally vegetarian and vegan dish that's widely served across the Mediterranean.
Most restaurants in Marseille with a focus on traditional Provencal cooking will offer these two popular dips on their lunch and dinner menus, usually as starters.
Chichi Frégi (Marseille-Style Doughnuts)
These doughnuts native to Marseille are sold by vendors around the city and are an essential street-food treat. Based on an old Italian recipe, these thick doughnuts are infused with orange blossom essence and dusted with sugar. Enjoy them with jam, nutella, or whipped cream, but beware—it can be hard to stop once you start!
The three stalls in Marseille most coveted for their delicious chichi-frégi are both in the Estaque district: Lou Gustado de l’Estaco and Chez Magali. Head to the Plage de l'Estaque (Estaque Beach) and get your hands on some.
This sun-soaked vegetable dish is popular around Provence, including in Marseille. Healthy and naturally vegetarian, ratatouille is traditionally prepared by separately sauteeing fresh summer zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. A good-quality virgin olive oil is key to allowing all the native flavor of the vegetables to emerge, and Provence herbs are usually added. You can enjoy ratatouille as a main dish with bread and French cheeses, or alongside fish or meat.
In Marseille, you can sample superb examples of the simple dish at restaurants including Le Montmartre and Le Bistrot à Vin, on the Vieux Port (Old Port).