Thursday, September 29, 2016

Thanks, but I'll stick with Sriracha or Yucateco Sauce.

In the ancient Roman world a salty, oily condiment made from fermented fish guts took the Roman Empire by storm.  Called garum, it became an important commodity all over the empire, providing fats, protein, salts, vitamins, minerals, and most importantly flavor to places in the empire were little could be found.  Originally a Greek creation, the Roman obsession with garum would propel the fish sauce to become the most popular condiment in the Roman Empire.

When the fishmongers gutted the daily catch, the guts, scales, and other inedible parts were not merely thrown away, rather they were gathered by the garum maker.  The guts were coated with salt, layered in large urns, and left out to heat in the sun for one to three months.  During this time the ingredients would liquefy and ferment, forming a thick paste.  When ready, a clear amber colored fluid would separate for the thicker material.  This clear fluid was pure garum, and was skimmed, bolted, and sold for a hefty price.  The skimming of more fluid would lead to cloudier and less pure forms of garum, which were much cheaper.  The remaining paste was called “allum”, and was sold as a budget “poor mans garum sauce”.  All grades of garum were flavored with different herbs and spices, depending on local tastes.

 The garum makers were relegated to the outskirts of a city, as the process of garum making tended to create an enormous stench.  Garum itself became one of the most important commodities of the Roman world, being shipped all over Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.  It was issued regularly as rations for Roman soldiers and was even accepted as money.  Garum was also valued for its medicinal value; used to treat dog bites, (or cause, one would think) diarrhea, ulcers, dysentery, to remove unwanted hair, and to remove freckles (NOOO!).

Alas the fall of the Roman Empire would lead to the fall of garum, especially as Germanic peoples who turned their noses at fermented fish sauce settled Europe and carved out kingdoms from the former Roman Empire.  Today garum still can be found, though only produced by small business who cater to specialty gourmet foods.  At around the same time the Romans were making garum, peoples in Southeast Asia were making a remarkably similar fish sauce called  nước mắm, which today is still widely popular in Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodian cuisine.


  1. Back in the day, my fisheries professor told us that SE Asian stuff was made out of fermented fish from fresh water streams Gobies. He had a jar of it. It was putrid! I figured if I ate some, I'd be blowing out of both ends, or if I starved for a day, I'd achieve the same results with less trouble.

  2. Actually, one of my favorite things to eat is Vietnamese spring rolls dipped in fish sauce.

  3. Soy sauce is ersatz fish sauce first made by people too far from the sea to get the real thing, and is made in much the same way, just fermenting vegetable instead of animal portion.

  4. As a combat note, during the late era of combat in SE Asia, I had occasion to visit those lands and you could smell the enemy because of the fish sauce that they sweated out, and shat out. Of course the Americans had the same general problem and one took care in one's diet to keep it as generic as possible - or to eat "their" food so as not to have the same sort of marker. The problem with eating their cuisine is that you lost your ability to locate "them" by smell.

    Working in areas of total enemy control was something that "we" did better than "they" did primarily because of the fish sauce issue IMHO.

  5. Sweet Jesus, pass the ketchup.

  6. I thought lutefisk was bad.