Garum (Fish Sauce) The Ketchup of Antiquity

No doubt you’ve heard the recent news that has the archeological world all atwitter of the remains of a 1st Century Roman cargo ship, originally discovered in 2000, in shallow waters off the coast of Spain. News of a major shipwreck find always grabs my eye, because of a strong interest on my part (and a mild to moderate obsession on Mike’s part) with the romance of discovering and excavating a shipwreck.

Some of you may know (but most will not) that among his many skills, Mike is a certified SCUBA instructor; although he hasn’t instructed in many years, he holds instructor credentials for NAUI, PADI, and, the tough LA County Underwater Instructors Association (UICC class #19…a long time ago). When he decided to abandon engineering (his first career) for a new directon, he seriously considered two options: going into medicine (which he ultimately chose) versus buying a dive boat, becoming a salvage diver, and following his treasure hunting muse to try to uncover sunken riches.

Thus our keen interest in the article,which our local paper picked up with the headline:

Roman shipwreck, cargo promise historical insights

What could be more exciting? Imagine the riches aboard!

Then we noticed the tag-line of the article: First-century vessel carried prized fish sauce.

Say what? Fish sauce? Not gold, silver, bronze, or jewels? Nope. Fish sauce.

And prized is an understatement. This 100 foot long cargo vessel, with a capacity for about 400 tons of cargo carried hundreds of clay amphorae (two handled jars) of fish sauce. The citizenry of the far-flung Roman Empire of a couple of millenia ago loved the stuff and apparantly added it to or drizzled it on just about everything. It was the ketchup of antiquity.

In his fabulous recent book, Fish on Fridays, historian Brian Fagan waxes poetic on the topic of fish sauce.

We were fortunate enough to have attended Mr. Fagan’s lecture/reading/book signing of Fish on Fridays not long ago at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and gleefully came away with our signed first edition of his book, which is incredible. If you have any interest in historical accounts of events that read like really good fiction, take a look at virtually any of his books, but this one in particular, if food is your passion…or should I say ‘poisson’ is your passion? And if you ever get the opportunity to catch one of his presentations, don’t miss it.

On the subject of fish sauce or garum as the Romans knew it, he writes:

Garum: Roman Fish Sauce

Roman cooks placed great emphasis on sauces and flavors, but none was more ubiquitous than garum–fish sauce. The modern equivalent would be tomato ketchup or Tabasco sauce, utilitarian products used to enhance all manner of dishes, both lavish and prosaic…today’s global cuisine provides an equivalent to garum in readily available Asian fish sauces [such as nuoc-nam, nam-pla]. There were many garums (also known as liquamen) so there was no universal recipe, much depending on the catch at hand.

There were hundreds of recipes for garum, few of which survive, for each manufacturer–each fishing family–had its own favorite blend. The third-century writer Gargilious Martialis gives an example in his De medicine et virtue herbarum:

“Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a container, whose inside is sealed with pitch, with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs, possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others in 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 the 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.”

Sounds pretty wretched, until you realize that it’s not all that different from the concoction that is Worcestershire sauce, which uses anchovies instead of sardines, but that’s a technicality. We put that stuff on meat, poultry, fish, and in sauces without a blink. So how did the ancient Romans use their version of it?

For answers, I turned to my library of cookbooks.

Among my collection, I have a cookbook titled Dine As A Roman Emperor: How To Cook Ancient Roman Recipes Today that I picked up on one of our visits to the ruins of Pompeii. (A magical place; it you get a chance to see it, don’t miss it, either!) I first picked it up just out of curiosity about what the Romans feasted on back in the day, but ended up buying it because it has not only translations of the original simple instructions from Roman writings, but modern day adaptations of these fabulous recipes. While there are some dishes that simply don’t translate, and some ingredients that don’t even exist anymore, I found it interesting (and somewhat vindicating) that there was little pasta, not a ton of starchy stuff, lots of meats, poultry, fish, fresh veggies, fruits, nuts, and herbs. In fact, a great many of the recipes would seem right at home on any low-carber’s table with minimal adaptation.

And, more pertinent to this topic, from eggs to entrees, about every other one uses fish sauce.

The amazing diversity of dishes with fish sauce in the ingredients list gives us a hint into why the Romans needed to ship such large quantities of it around the empire. Just in this one cookbook, there’s fish sauce in:

A sauce for hard cooked eggs; nettle pie; baked lasagne; legume soup; polenta with meat sauce; fish soup; a sauce and grill marinade for chicken and pork chops; meat balls; roasted pork livers; liver pate; a brain flan; barbecued kidneys; fish pie; a vinaigrette dressing for cooked chard, turnips, leeks, winter squash, carrots or parsnips; chestnut puree; and, amazingly, a walnut flan that sounds incredible and that I think would make an exotic Thanksgiving savory side dish. So, for those with a bit of culinary curiosity, here’s how to do it. (Mike comments that if you’re really adventurous, you’ll whip out your trusty 36 quart amphora and make your own fish sauce!) Notwithstanding, here’s the recipe:

Walnut Flan
From Dining As Roman Emperor, by Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti (with my comments)

Serves 6

3 cups milk (I’d use half and half, myself)
8 eggs
3 1/2 ounces pine nuts
3 1/2 ounces walnut meats (I think I’d coarsely chop them)
1 tablespoon honey (I’d omit it or substitute a packet of Stevia or Splenda)
3 tablespoons nuoc-nam* (fish sauce, available at Asian markets)

*if no fish sauce available, substitute 2 scant teaspoons salt and a generous amount of pepper

(According to the author) you will need a ring mold, 12 inches in diameter and 4 inches deep (or a bundt pan, one supposes or, for my money, it would seem even easier to use 6 ramekins or custard cups and make individual servings.)

1. Toast the pine nuts and walnut meats lightly in a skillet with a tiny quantity of olive oil.
2. Beat the eggs as for an omelet. In a separate bowl (I’m not sure why, though) combine the milk, the honey (or sweetener) and the nuoc-nam (or s&p) and stir well. Add the beaten eggs to the milk mixture. Strain through a sieve to remove any solids.
3. Add the pine nuts and walnut meats and pour the mixture into the ring mold. (The author doesn’t say to do it, but for my money, I’d butter the ring mold or custard cups well beforehand for easier release later.)
4. Set the mold (or cups) in a large lower (i.e., shallow) pan of boiling water and bake in a low oven (about 325 degrees, I would guess) for 1 hour and 15 minutes (less for the individual cups–see below).
5. Turn out the flan, sprinkle with plenty of pepper, cool slightly, but serve warm.

Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? It would even be delicious to add some sauteed wild mushrooms or a puree of sauteed mushrooms to the mixture.

And I would bet that it would be all the easier done in individual ramekins just as you would a dessert flan or creme brulee. You’d need to cut down the cooking time somewhat, probably to about 45 minutes or 1 hour and check it by the ‘jiggle method’ just as you would for any other custard–i.e., it should come out of the oven when it’s mostly set, but still jiggles just a tiny bit in the center when you tap the dish.

Now you’re all set for a Roman Holiday! Enjoy!

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2 thoughts on “Garum (Fish Sauce) The Ketchup of Antiquity

  1. As one of your readers, I know that you and Dr. Mike advocate consumption of fish such as sardines and use of fish oil capsules. Would
    nuoc mam also have similar beneficial health properties?

    COMMENT from MD EADES; One would assume that it would, but it’s so salty that it’s only used in relatively small amounts.

  2. RE: fish sauce

    The asian food markets carry “fish sauce” which is remarkably similar to this Roman find. I find it really smelly, but when used on food it really perks it up.

    The below is a portion copied from http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/features/fishsauce1.html

    “They say curiosity kills the cat, and I certainly do get my share of curious students, who wish to know how just about every bottled sauce from across the Pacific is made, including fish sauce.

    In case you are not yet familiar with fish sauce, it is that salty, smelly brown liquid made from fish that is the single, most important flavoring ingredient in Thai cooking (also well-loved in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and the Philippines). Used like salt in western cooking and soy sauce in Chinese cooking, good-quality fish sauce imparts a distinct aroma and flavor all its own. It is indispensable in the Thai kitchen as Thai food wouldn’t be quite the same without it.

    Called “nam bplah” in Thai, or literally “fish water,” genuine fish sauce is the water, or juice, in the flesh of fish that is extracted in the process of prolonged salting and fermentation. It is made from small fish that would otherwise have little value for consumption. This can either be freshwater or saltwater fish, though today, most fish sauce is made from the latter as pollution and dams have drastically reduced the once plentiful supply of freshwater fish in the heartlands of Southeast Asia.

    Among marine fish, anchovies and related species of small schooling fish from two to five inches in length are commonly used, as they can be found in bountiful supply in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Larger varieties of fish, such as mackerel and sardines, also make good fish sauce, but because they are relatively more expensive due to their value as a food fish, they are seldom used in the commercial production of fish sauce.

    For fish sauce to develop a pleasant, fragrant aroma and taste, the fish must be very fresh. As soon as fishing boats return with their catch, the fish are rinsed and drained, then mixed with sea salt – two to three parts fish to one part salt by weight. They are then filled into large earthenware jars, lined on the bottom with a layer of salt, and topped with a layer of salt. A woven bamboo mat is placed over the fish and weighted down with heavy rocks to keep the fish from floating when water inside them are extracted out by the salt and fermentation process.

    The jars are covered and left in a sunny location for nine months to a year. From time to time, they are uncovered to air out and to let the fish be exposed to direct, hot sunshine”…….

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Precisely; You’ll notice that the recipe I included calls for using Asian fish sauce (nuoc-nam or nam-pla) and mentions that you can obtain it from Asian markets. Not every town has an Asian market, however, thus the salt/pepper substitution the author of the recipe provided. Thanks for providing all the interesting info about southeast Asian cuisine.