DIET/ The Romans loved their fish sauce, and globalised it
Rrishi Raote / New Delhi August 26, 2007
Things that have fermented make some of the most appetising flavours on the modern table. Wine, beer, vinegar, bread, cheese, sauerkraut, achar, dahi, dosas and idlis all come from fermentation. Nice things (mostly) go into these foods. Would you, however, be quite as interested in garum, a fish sauce that the ancient Romans adored, and which was made of fermented fish entrails?
Perhaps not. But similar fish sauces are still around, especially in Southeast Asian cuisines. Vietnam’s ubiquitous nuoc mam is made much like garum was, and then diluted or flavoured with a variety of ingredients to go with many dishes.
The India-inspired English Worcestershire sauce is another. Worcestershire was invented quite by mistake in the 1830s, after a barrelful of an attempted anchovy sauce turned out too pungent and was left in a basement and forgotten. When it was finally opened years later, the liquid was discovered to be quite tasty, and Messrs Lea & Perrins (whose basement it was) marketed it very successfully.
This is how garum was made: fresh fish parts, the blood and innards of mackerel, say, were layered alternately in large containers with generous amounts of salt. Over about a month of standing in the sun, the enzymes within the fish broke them down into a thin liquid — the garum — and a paste that settled at the bottom known as allec. (Pliny the Elder writes that allec heals burns; it was also eaten as a savoury spread.) The process was so unbearably smelly that laws forbade Romans to make garum at home; thus one of Rome’s few suburban factory industries came into being.
The sauce itself was not strong-smelling, and seems to have been used very widely as a condiment, in place of salt. In fact, the Romans took it from the Greeks, whose garos was designed to avoid wasting all the assorted little fish at the bottom of the net which couldn’t be eaten as separate dishes.
As imperials, the Romans added snob value to the food, by discriminating between garums made from different raw ingredients, such as single species of fish, more blood, or more intestines (which added to the pungency). Garum is thus one of the earliest manufactured, processed foods with a global market. Ancient ketchup, in other words.
Fermented fish, anyone. Or garum, as the Romans liked to call it.
I wrote about garum and the other fish sauce liquamen in the pages of The Wanderer when I was examining the 4th Eucharistic Prayer. Here is an excerpt:
Speaking of recipes we have a 1st c. A.D. cookbook of a fellow named Marcus Gavius Apicius. There are some modern editions which have worked out the measurements and substitutions for things hard to obtain today, like silphium (Grk. silphion called in purer Latin laserpitium, “laser”) which was related to the fennel plant. Silphium was cultivated into extinction by the 2nd c. A.D. because it was a known abortifacient “contraceptive”. The 1st c. B.C. Roman poet G. Valerius Catullus (+c. 54) said that he and his main squeeze “Lesbia” could enjoy as many metonymous “kisses” as there were grains of sand as on Cyrene’s silphium bearing (lasarpiciferis) shores (cf. c. 7). In any event, a copy of Apicius in the kitchen could be handy in the USA, given the hurricane induced tomato shortage or even if you are refusing to use certain brands of tomato ketchup. Of course, ancient Romans didn’t have tomatoes, which came from the New World. Thus, in time of lycopersical scarcity check out the tomatoless ancient Roman cuisine. In no time you too could be dining on nightingale tongues and dormice. Well, take that cum grano salis. There are great appetizing recipes in Apicius, honestly. Virtually all of them require the ancient version of ketchup too! Ketchup, as you may not know, comes from Eastern Asia: it was a salty pickled fish sauce – ketsiap. The English word catchup appears in 1690 and ketchup in 1711. In the mid-1800’s Americans began using tomatoes in their pickled sauce. In ancient Roman cookery, a heavily predominate ingredient was garum, an intense salty picked fish sauce. I’ll spare you a description of how it was made. The city of Pompeii, destroyed by Vesuvius in A.D. 79, was a major producer and exporter of some of the very best garum, also called liquamen. Archeologists found in Pompeii some amphorae, shipping and storage containers for liquid, with preserved garum still inside. Analysis determined that garum is closely analogous to present day Vietnamese fish sauce … ! Without question garum is the ketchup of the ancient Romans. They cooked with it and poured it generously over everything. Yum!