Fish sauce is a benign way to describe garum, which historically has been made from fermented fish guts, or fish blood, or whole fish such as mackerel, mullet, tuna, anchovies or a combination of those ingredients.
Garum is an ancient Roman sauce that Pliny the Elder enjoyed in 1st century AD, and in the late 4th or 5th century AD the Apicius collection of recipes relied heavily on the use of garum, using it as a salt substitute. Apparently it was all the rage to have different types of garum, made from mullet or mackerel which were perceived as top quality and commanded the highest price, or from tuna or from any fish in the net. Reminds me of all the esoteric, ‘designer’ salts that are cramming the shelves of Whole Foods. Can you imagine sending your unenlightened Significant Other into the store to pick up ‘some salt’? Good lord, they might come home with just anything!
Happily, I didn’t have to make my own garum because the process sounds extremely smelly (think of unwashed gym socks), and in ancient Roman times the production of garum was restricted to outside the city walls. Basically you salt the fish and then let them ferment until the natural enzymes have dissolved the fish and you are left with clear, oil like substance. The finished product that I found, “Colatura di alici” from the Amalfi coast, is made from anchovies and isn’t smelly at all, it’s sort of mildly fishy, and strongly salty. And before you gag thinking about barrels full of partially decomposed anchovies, fermented anchovies is an ingredient in Worstershire sauce, and who doesn’t love Worstershire sauce?
So, what to do with my garum? Last night we tried it with a basic anchovy and tomato sauce, finished with some parsley and a scrape or two of tangerine peel. There was a delicious depth of flavor, without being overly assertive. Turns out that garum is a natural flavor enhancer, rich in amino acids and vitamin A.
Next up: some experiments using garum in conjunction with honey and chili, roasted fruits, vegetables, boiled potatoes…