Now reading The Original Fish Sauce

The Original Fish Sauce

What you need to know about Roman garum.

In a very charming YouTube video, Heston Blumenthal, the science-obsessed chef of The Fat Duck, makes what he calls “garum sauce.”

“Garum was the flavor of Rome,” Blumenthal begins. “It was the Roman equivalent of tomato ketchup. They were wild about this stuff, and they used it in 90 percent of all recipes. The Romans adored garum, which they sploshed on everything. It was a sauce made from the fresh guts of a still gasping fish. The fish guts were mixed with brine, fermented in the sun for three months, and filtered… Garum was so popular that it was mass-produced. The Romans also used it in cosmetics and as a medicine for dog bites.”

The truth is, of course, much more complicated than this—and it starts with the word “garum” itself. Scholars disagree on what separates garum from liquamen, allec, and muria—all terms that refer to a fish-sauce-like product—as well as how the sauce was made, used, produced, and traded, when it came into existence, and exactly why and when it lost popularity.

Let’s start with what we do know.

Garum, in its original form, is descended from the ancient Greek garon, a thick, black sauce made from mullet or tuna innards. These guts, as well as the fish blood, were packed in salt and left out in the sun to ferment through a process called “autolysis” (from the ancient Greek meaning “self-splitting”), in which the enzymes in the guts, along with the sun, liquefied the mixture, while the salt’s preservative properties prevented the usual process of decay. The Greeks likely invented the Mediterranean version of the process in the fifth century BCE, though it’s possible the Phoenicians began even earlier.

As an elite food, early garum was extremely expensive. As such, Romans used it more as a condiment than an ingredient. We know from letters, poems, and recipes that it was often poured over oysters, or on top of a patina (an egg dish like the Spanish tortilla de patatas). Other records show it could be combined with pepper and poured on fish from a wineskin, or blended with Falernian wine and served with roasted wild boar.

Liquamen, which means “liquid mixture,” is now used interchangeably with garum. At the outset, however, liquamen was the common man’s garum, with different grades for different classes of people. (Even slaves were liquamen users.) The difference was the type of fish used: sardines, herring, shad, and eel instead of garum’s mullet or tuna. Liquamen was made by packing whole fish—not just the insides—in salt and allowing it to ferment in the sun through a similar process. The results were then filtered, resulting in a clearer sauce with a thinner consistency that could be used more frequently in cooking.

Muria, it seems, was the brine filtered away from the fish after fermentation (fish brined secondarily in this solution were also called muria), and allec was the leftover sediment that was made into a paste. These sauces, too, were very common, and could come in versions more suitable to those with fewer resources. Haimation, a sauce for wealthier citizens, was like garum, but made from the guts and blood of mackerel.

This diversity of fish sauce options in ancient Rome points to its overwhelming popularity. In Pompeii, a main site of fish sauce production, garum vessels have been found throughout the city, in houses of the wealthy as well as average citizens, and also in inns, food shops, and bars. Pliny the Elder devotes a chapter to garum and its uses, calling it a liquid of “very exquisite nature.” Though we can’t be sure that, as Blumenthal claims, 90 percent of all Roman recipes included garum—only a fraction of Roman recipes are extant—it is a common ingredient in what recipes we do have.

And the sauce was so popular that it was, in fact, mass-produced in factories throughout the Mediterranean basin. Sites have been discovered along the coasts of Spain, Portugal, Egypt and the rest of North Africa, Gaul—which covered most of Western Europe, including all of France, Luxembourg, and Belgium, most of Switzerland and northern Italy, as well as parts of Germany and the Netherlands—Sicily, Sardinia, and the Black Sea region.

While preparations of the fish sauces differed, they all involved the fermentation of fish or fish parts over an extended period of time, a process which would have permeated the surrounding areas with a noxious odor. These garum plants, then, were always located far outside of the city walls, often right along the sea.

The sauce’s popularity is also evident in the commerce surrounding it. There were dedicated fish-sauce merchants, which suggests that the sauce was popular enough on its own to support a merchant’s livelihood. There seems to have been stiff competition among these dealers as well, as evidenced by the titulus picti, or painted advertisements, on the sides of fish sauce amphorae. One merchant’s amphorae read GARI FLOS, or “the flower of garum,” while a competing merchant one-upped him with amphorae that read GARI FLORIS FLOS, “the flower of the flower of garum.”

Because coastal areas were important for fishing, as well as the production of salt fish and fish sauces, it has even been suggested that the Roman’s love for garum and its sibling sauces might be at least partially responsible for the Empire’s consistent push towards further expansion.

So if these fermented fish sauces were so popular, why did they go out of style?

It seems that as the Roman Empire expanded beyond its capacity to function, and its leader and governors needed funds, enormous taxes were levied on salt. Considering many liquamen recipes required the fish to lie on an inch of salt with another inch of salt on top, these high taxes would have greatly hindered its production.

In addition to the taxes, as the empire weakened, the Roman military presence shrunk back towards the city of Rome, and the empire’s borders became softer and more nebulous. This opened up the coasts (where fish sauce was produced) to pirates, who invaded from the sea, destroying the nearest cities and, in the process, the fish sauce plants.

Still, though taxes and pirates may have pushed garum out of ancient Roman fashion, fish sauce never actually went out of style (look at almost all of Asian cuisine for examples of its use). Even if you don’t think it’s your thing, you’ve probably eaten it recently without knowing it. As Heston Blumenthal points out, any brown- or Worcestershire-sauce-eating Englishman has probably had a form of garum within the last five days.

Americans’ relationship to ancient Rome can sometimes seem as complicated as the history of garum. While the foundations of our government were inspired by the Roman Republic, and buildings all over Washington, D.C., and beyond reflect an unhealthy obsession with Neoclassical architecture, we may also be too quick to dismiss Roman practices and customs as strange or disgusting. The Romans gossiped, loved, worked, wrote, argued, and ate in ways that were much more similar to Americans than many of us might like to admit.

Like Blumenthal says, “Fermented fish sauce may sound disgusting, but the Romans were actually ahead of their time in cooking with it.” While I’m not sure they were “ahead of their time”—the ancient Greeks invented garum before the Romans used it, and fermented fish sauce was likely used in the East well before that—his point is well taken. In Vietnam, for instance, fish sauce is prepared by packing anchovies in salt and leaving them to ferment in wooden barrels, a process that is fairly similar to the ancient Romans’.

Though the idea of fermented fish sauce may sound disgusting, many of those turning up their noses to the idea have likely eaten a form of garum in the last five days in their Vietnamese takeout. We’re not so different from the Romans after all.