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Oct 2, 2009 03:45 AM

Roman rotted fish sauce

I read this in a newspaper described as "ubiquitous" and "the ketchup of it's day". What on earth is it?

Never mind. "Let me google that for me"

A similar fish sauce was ubiquitous in Classical Roman cooking, where in Latin it is known as garum or liquamen, and also existed in many varieties such as oxygarum (mixed with vinegar) and meligarum (mixed with honey). It was one of the trade specialties in Hispania Baetica. It was made of a variety of fish including tuna, mackerel, moray eel, and anchovies.[2] Garum was frequently maligned as smelling bad or rotten, being called, for example, "evil-smelling fish sauce." This attitude derives in part from ancient authors who satirized the condiment, but mostly from the fact that fish sauce was generally unknown in the Western world until very recently. The truth is quite different, and in fact garum only smelled when it was being made. Once the process was complete it had a pleasant aroma for as long as it was usable.

In English it was formerly translated as fishpickle. The original Worcestershire sauce is a related product because it is fermented and contains anchovies.

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  1. ......."evil-smelling fish sauce." Sounds like nuoc mam.

    1 Reply
    1. Yes, you might say garum was the ketchup (or perhaps more accurately Worcestershire sauce, which also contains anchovies) of its day. It would be more appropriate to call it fermented rather than rotted.

      Its use is discussed extensively in Apicius, the only known extant cookbook from ancient Roman times. I have a copy, from which I learned this.

      There were many variations, from low to high quality, and as many different uses. The finest versions were made exclusively from fish livers, and were renowned for their medicinal properties (think cod liver oil). Who says the ancients didn't understand the need for vitamins?

      7 Replies
      1. re: BobB

        Nice facts Bob! I never knew worcestershire sauce used anchovies! Although ceasar sauce and I think gentleman's relish (snigger) use anchovies. Love anchovies!

        Come to think of it, maybe caesar sauce is somehow derived from this sauce?

        And I am reminded of the Futurama episode regarding the last can of anchivies in the world.

          1. re: Caitlin McGrath

            I think Soop means Caesar Dressing, which indeed does contain Worcestershire in the original recipe. Now, most folks use mashed anchovy fillets or paste when making Caesar Salad dressing; the original recipe was based on what Caesar had at hand there in Tijuana or wherever his hotel was. adam

            1. re: adamshoe

              Well, my first inclination was the same as yours, Adam, that he was referring to Caesar salad, which, yes, was originally made with Worcestershire sauce, not anchovy fillets, by Caesar wasn't exactly inspired by garum! But I thought it worth asking our British friend to clarify.

          2. re: Soop

            You will find some caesar dressings with anchovy paste in them but a lot of chefs are now using Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce instead of the paste. I've been using fish sauce for 40 years - early on, only in Thai food but recently I use it in any dish that it might at some extra flavor. It is not nearly as complex as Worcestershire sauce but a splash of it can give an umami boost to almost any chowder, bouillabaisse or salad dressing. My favorite brand is Golden Boy, from Thailand.

          3. re: BobB

            The only difference I've ever found between rotting and fermenting seems to be "Do you plan to eat if afterwards?" (Not that I have anything against such foods, but, really, it's almost a matter of symantics).

            1. re: Terrieltr

              Yeah, it is kind of semantic, but there's more to it than just whether you plan to eat the result. For one thing, fermentation implies a degree of intentionality and control - emphasis on the PLAN to eat (or drink) it. Rotting is more accidental, haphazard, unfortunate.

          4. My understanding is it's sort of considered the first sauce.

            1. We recently took a one day cooking class in Provence with a chef who is an expert on traditional Provencal and Roman recipes. We made a wonderful roast chicken dish that was slathered with a sauce made with honey, mustard, milled spices - and Thai fish sauce! Talk about stinky fermented anchovies...and a rich, deep, flavorful sauce!

              1 Reply
              1. re: Ms.M

                That sounds amazing—still got the recipe?

              2. Wasn't garum a leading industry of Pompeii in its last days?
                Sounds quite like Ngoc Nam.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Parigi

                  Yes, it was. It was an "industrial" product, not something made at home, and Pompeii was a big center of production. Nuoc nam is a standard substitute suggested in adapted ancient recipes.