Garum: Mediterranean Fish Sauce

Elixir of the Gods

Ever heard of Garum? It's an ancient Roman fish sauce used as a condiment that dates back to the first century A.D. No, it's not a sauce you put on fish (but, I guess you could), it's a sauce made of... well, fish! Actually, garum has Greek origins, called "garos or garon" named after the sea creatures fisherman used to make the sauce in the 2nd century B.C. The Italians graciously borrowed the recipe. Garum is produced by crushing and fermenting fish, usually anchovies (sometimes sardines or mackerel), covered in layers of aromatic herbs and salt in oak barrels, then left to age in the sun for 20 days to 2 months. Yes folks, it's made of rotting fish. But, the final product, liquid fish essence, has a nutty, almost cheesy aroma. This fish sauce is still used today, mostly in southern Italy, as a dipping sauce, marinade ingredient or in pasta dishes. Because of it's pungent explosive taste, it's used sparingly. A little goes a long way. Garum has that fifth element of taste "umami" adding a depth of flavor on the palette that doesn't hint sweet, sour, spicy or salty. It just screams delicious!

Garum does have some interesting lore associated with it:

- was used as a medicine to cure dysentery, ulcers and even dog bites

- cosmetically, garum was used to remove unwanted hair and freckles

- archeologists employed Garum remnants to determine that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii, occurred in August because the fish bones found were of a seasonal species.

- fish sauce production sites were usually located in the outskirts of towns because of the smell

- at the height of the Roman Empire the best Garum was produced in Spain and imported to Italy

- the sauce appears in most of the recipes featured in Apicius, an ancient Roman cookbook dating back to the 1st century A.D.

Ancient Roman Garum Recipe

Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.

Use Garum as you would dried salted or tinned anchovies (it's salty, so treat garum as if it were salt). Italians have a penchant for adding a little anchovy to their meat braises and stews. It marries well with the meat juices creating a flavor you won't recognize as fishy, but will miss if not included. I use this fish sauce blended with Extra virgin olive oil or melted butter as a dipping sauce for raw vegetables or crusty bread (a simplified bagna cauda). And, of course, add it to simple tomato sauce for pasta to give it an extra umami kick. Delizioso!

Making Garum

Pompeiian Garum Pitcher mosaic

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Food for Thought

Fish sauce is a very prominent condiment in Southeast Asia. Nuoc mam (Vietnam), Nam pla (Thailand) are used in a very similar fashion in these Asian cuisines. It flavors dipping sauces, is used in curries and stews and is an element in their soups and noodle dishes. Is there a connection here? Or coincidence? Is it a coastal thing? Or was there a dispersion of culinary information between cultures? Very interesting. If you have an opinion, feel free to leave a comment below.

BTW, Garum can be difficult to find and relatively expensive. A very suitable substitution is Asian fish sauce. Here is a guide to choose the best available. My favorite is Three Crabs Brand (see below).

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Comments 19 comments

Daddy Paul profile image

Daddy Paul 6 years ago from Michigan

I don't know if I would eat Garum but I enjoyed the read.

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

Thanks Daddy Paul, glad you enjoyed the read. Garum has a very distinct flavor, but once it's cooked into a dish it mellows. I'm addicted to it. Ciao!

Lady_E profile image

Lady_E 6 years ago from London, UK

Interesting Read - First time I've heard of Garum. Crushing and Fermenting fish... I have to taste this one day.

I like the way you explained the Recipes. You love your food Jai and certainly eat healthy. :)

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

Thanks Lady E. Garum adds a very deep, earthy tone (even though it's made of fish) to dishes. You should try it. Always nice to see you Elena! :)

katiem2 profile image

katiem2 6 years ago from I'm outta here

What a delighful treat I adore the way you think about food, I must try your fab mediterranean fish sauce. Thanks Jai your a dear :)

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

Katie, I'm addicted to Garum. It's such a unique flavor, not like anything you've tried before. Warning: it's an acquired taste. Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the kind words. Ciao!

prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

I never know about "garum" before. But you make me clear about this seasoning. I believe it made the cooking more delicious. Thank you very much!

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

Thanks prasetio, good to see you. It's very similar to SE Asian fish sauce, it adds that special deliciousness to food. Ciao!

wavegirl22 profile image

wavegirl22 6 years ago from New York, NY

Just think of all the foodie condiments you could write about and put them together to get one big challenge loaded with so many delicious lessons ;) wink wink

Now I am hungry for some Extra virgin olive oil dipping sauce for raw vegetables or crusty bread and some pasta with tomato sauce and an extra umami kick!

Rated upwards and awesome!

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

OK OK. Thanks for the condiments. Oops, I mean compliments. :) Your a sweetheart, WG. We'll see about those future food Hubs. I'll let you know. Always good to see you. All the best, Ciao!

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 6 years ago from TEXAS

Fascinating! At first glance I thought - I know that - but was thinking of Garam Masala, the spice - not at all the same thing. So - tell me, with what Mediterranean area it's associated? I'd guess maybe Lebanon? Oh I see - Roman vintage. OK. I'm so excited I'm not 'digesting' it all before I begin to blab. LOL.

I'm tickled that you wrote on one of my hubs so I could discover yours!

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

Welcome Nellieanna... Garum was originally made by the Greeks, and the Romans continued the tradition. It does have, what people say, is a very strong odor. But, when it's added to the cooking process, it adds a unique depth of flavor.

I'll be over to read more of your writing in the near future. Thanks for the comment, Ciao!

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 6 years ago from TEXAS

I just watched that video. Easy to understand why it's expensive. wow - lots of steps in preparation to start - then that one-drop-at-a time as the liquid result finally collects. Now what has me concerned is that there is no cooking involved. I suppose the sardines are brined to pieces, though. I can't seem to come to terms with raw fish.

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

The salt actually cooks the fish... the result is the liquid fish essence. It's used mainly in stews and as an addition to pasta sauces. If you've enjoyed Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, you've tasted the flavor. Very subtle, but delicious. Umami! Two visits in a day, I'm honored.

chinky 6 years ago

Being Asian I love fish sauce! (definitely acquired taste.) To me, Asian fish sauce is almost floral but in seafood/briny sort of way. I'm very curious if there is any difference between garam and Asian fish sauce. I've just read that some garam recipes include using herbs like dill, thyme, and oregano with the salt and fish, I guess other garam recipes are just fish? If just fish, I wonder why the Italians haven't used Asian techniques to produce it? Asian produces it by the vats! (see Andrew Zimmern's "Bizzare Foods" in Vietnam. he visits a fish sauce company.)

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

Yes, fish sauce is an acquired taste. But, it adds so much flavor (umami) to food. I believe both the Asian and Roman versions use vats to produce their fish sauce... by volume Asian countries produce so much more than the Italians. Garum isn't as intense as the Asian types. And, the Greeks were the first Mediterranean people to produce it... I believe that's where the herbs come from. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Ciao!

hubpageswriter 6 years ago

Another great knowledge for me here Jai. I'm sure this Mediterranean fish sauce is as exotically tasting as the name suggests.

Jai Warren profile image

Jai Warren 6 years ago from Dallas, Deep Ellum, Texas Author

HPW, it has a very intense salty, briny taste that adds a unique flavor to foods. Asians fish sauce, much of the time, is used in lieu of salt. Garum is used as a flavor enhancer to stews and pasta dishes. Glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks, Ciao!!!

DRG Da Real Grinc profile image

DRG Da Real Grinc 6 months ago from All over the USA

Thank you for introducing me to Garum, food is my dearest love and learning about new food and spices is always great.

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