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!
Pompeiian Garum Pitcher mosaic
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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