What does this word bring to your mind? Perhaps nothing. But if it does bring something, then I wouldn’t be surprised if that something were a tomato coulis, or a red pepper coulis, or a raspberry coulis or some other berry coulis: a fairly thin purée-style sauce without hard lumps or seeds, probably distributed in Jackson Pollock style like jacks and a ball on your jackfruit and pollock, or even more likely in Saturnine or Saturnalian orbit around a chocolate dessert of some sort.

John Ayto, in The Diner’s Dictionary, coolly sets the record straight:

A coulis is a thick purée or sieved sauce made typically of vegetables or fruit (tomato coulis is a common manifestation of it). Nouvelle cuisiners’ penchant for using fruit coulis, especially made from raspberries, at every opportunity has recently made the term familiar to English-speakers, but in fact it first crossed the Channel nearly 600 years ago, in the form ‘cullis’.

Cullis! My, the things one culls. And by what portcullis or port-of-call did it come to England? What was this thing? It was a strong broth made from boiled meat – for example, beef tea (beef tea is a term forever tainted in my ears by its being repeated enthusiastically by an annoying boy android in an episode of an after-school cartoon I watched in my childhood, not that you would care about that).

And a coulis was originally a broth or jelly made from the juices of roasted meat (you now have a new name for that stuff that comes from your roasting pan – it’s not just jus, and, oh, it’s not au jus, which means ‘with juice’: your language is too lumpy if you serve a meat “with au jus”). The key, though, in all cases, is that it’s strained. The source of coulis is ultimately Latin colare, ‘strain, flow through’, source of our word colander.

Do not confuse coulis and coulisse (and do not confuse coulisse and calice, but that’s another thing). A coulisse is any of a few things: a corridor; one of the wings on a stage; the outside traders on the Paris Stock Exchange, and the place they gather; and a groove for a sliding sluice gate. The last of these is likely something you will find somewhere on the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State.

Coulee, like coulisee, comes from the same Latin source as coulis, but in the case of coulee it’s by way of the French verb couler – cool, eh? A coulee is a ravine or gulch or arroyo or wadi, a sort of grand natural sluice for rain runoff but dry most of the year. This, apparently, is a western Canadian and western American usage. I didn’t know that, and I didn’t know, when I was in high school in Banff, that not even all of my classmates knew the word. I was new in the school in grade 10 (my classmates from Exshaw all went to Canmore, and I was glad not to), and one of the students had the last name Coolie. I remarked to another classmate, “That Coolie is a son of a ditch.” He did not get the joke. But I got a reputation for saying things that didn’t make sense.

Anyway, the Grand Coulee was a great big coulee. I say was because it doesn’t really count as a coulee now. It’s filled with water, thanks to the work of many labourers – men who carried heavy loads here and there, among others. Not waterboys! But also not – perhaps you thought I was going to say – coolies. Why not coolies? Because coolie is, as you likely know, a racist term used pretty much exclusively on Indian (i.e., from India) and Chinese manual labourers, particularly freight handlers and carriers. The word comes from Gujarati and/or Tamil and/or Turkish; it seems a sort of collation of words for an ethnic group, a labourer, and a slave. It was what they called the poor sorts who had to go around (often in broad shallow conical hats) doing hot work while the European colonials coolly oversaw them from the cooler shade while having a cool drink.

So the labourers on the Grand Coulee Dam were not coolies. And their work was to build the dam, not directly to fill the coulee. But the results was that they blocked the Columbia River, displacing many people and obstructing many fish – and permitting the irrigation of many crops and the production of much electricity. Quite the strain; was it worth it?

Imagine, though, if the strain had been not civil engineering on a big coulee but a big colander sieving coulis – filling the Grand Coulee coolly with coulis. Would you say “Raspberries to that”? Would you throw tomatoes? Or would you gulp the gully down your gullet, gorge yourself on the gorge? Or just use it to sauce the fish?

One response to “coulis

  1. James,

    I love this blog! OMG how do you do it? It’s really fantastic. I always feel like I have to stop reading every few lines because I need to look up a word/context/era I didn’t know of. Each post is bursting with so much knowledge, history and personality. It’s too good. I can’t read it, maybe take it in like a good espresso, sparingly…This is all meant to be a compliment.

    I also have a blog about arts etc. if you are so inclined:



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