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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 Cardini...so 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.

                2. According to McGee....

                  Garum: The original anchovy paste

                  One of the defining flavors of the ancient world was a fermented fish sauce variously called garos (Greece), garum and luiqamen. According to the Roman natural historian Pliny, "garum consists of the guts of fish and other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse, so garum is really the liquor of putrefaction." Despite its origins and no doubt powerful aroma, Pliny noted that "scarcely any other liquid except perfume has become more highly valued. ; the best, from mackerel only, came from Roman outposts in Spain. Garum was made by salting the fish innards, letting the mixture ferment in the sun for several months until the flesh had mostly fallen apart, and then straining the brown liquid. It was used as an ingredient in cooked dishes and as a sauce at the table, sometimes mixed with wine or vinegar (oenogarum, oxygarum). Some form of garum is called for in nearly every savory recipe in the late roman recipe collection attributed to Apicius.
                  Preparations like garum persisted in the Mediterranean through the 16th century, then died out as the moder-day solid version of garum rose to prominence: salt-cured but innard (sic) free anchovies.

                  Soop: You would love the book this reference comes from. "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee. 900 pages of reference cookery book without a recipe.

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: Paulustrious

                    actually, if the Zingerman's catalough is to be believed, there still is a condiment called Garum Colatura still used in parts of Naples. It's the liquid left in the barrels after the anchovies have been removed

                    1. re: jumpingmonk

                      Here is how your Colatura is made. The video is in Italian (obviously) but you can tell what's happening even if you can't understand what's being said by the narrator. What's interesting about the video is the very best garum in ancient rome was made from only the viscera or intestines of the Mackerel fish. Then lower grades were made from other parts of the fish or other fish entirely. In this video, they remove and discard the intestines of each small fish (anchovy). In Thai and Vietnamese fish sauces, the entire fish is used in the fermentation process. The video is below.


                      And here is a link to an article on how Thai fish sauce is made:


                      1. re: jumpingmonk

                        Garum is a specialty of the Amalfi Coast port town of Cetara; it is known there are colatura di alici (anchovy) and is often a component of pasta dishes (Usually with long pasta such as spaghetti) in the town and beyond. I believe there was a long thread about this on CH a few years back.


                        1. re: erica

                          Thanks erica. I posted a thread in the Ontario board asking for colatura di alici , but received zilch replies. That surprised me as there are quite a few Italians here in TO. I would be worried trying to ship it across the border - heavens knows what customs would make of it.

                          1. re: Paulustrious

                            I get the feeling that Zingermans would have no problem getting a bottle to you. With their main HQ in Ann Arbor Michigan, I would image they do shipping to Canada pretty reguarly

                            1. re: Paulustrious

                              Let us know if you use it. I had eaten it in Cetara but for some reason, when I made it myself at home, I had to use almost the entire bottle to replicate the anchovy punch that I had remembered.

                              They sell it in NYC at Buon Italia, too,in case anyone is looking for a NYC source.

                              1. re: erica

                                Erica, I have heard that the Colatura di Alici is much stronger in anchovy flavor than Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce. Has this been your experience as well?

                                1. re: Cremon

                                  It tasted very strongly of anchovies when I had it in Cetara in a pasta dish. But when I used some in my own kitchen, I had to use to much to replicate that anchovy bang that I would say that it was actually milder than nouc mam or the other Asian fish sauces. Maybe milder in flavor but purer in actual anchovy taste, if that makes sense.

                                  But that is just based on having it twice--once in Italy and once at home.

                                  I thought that some of the Vietnamese sauces were made of fishes other than anchovy..such as the ones made near Haiphong in Vn..


                                  1. re: erica

                                    Thanks for the feedback! I buy my favorite Thai fish sauce for about $2.39 US per bottle. And a bottle is 24 oz. (710 ml) The Colatura di Alici is $13 for 100 milliliters minimum, which is about 3.5 oz - a stunningly profound difference in cost. I wanted to get a feel for the taste difference before I made an investment like that. I use Thai fish sauce on pasta with olive oil and hot pepper flakes and it is absolutely delicious (The brand I use is Golden Boy). It sounds to me like the difference in flavor between Thai fish sauce and the Colatura garum does not justify the price tag difference.
                                    Some fish sauces might be made with different fish but I know that Golden Boy is made only with anchovies. ;-) Thank you Erica.

                                2. re: erica


                                  Cooking the Colatura di Alici will greatly reduce it's flavor. Did you add the Colatura di Alici to the sauce while cooking, or did you add it straight to the dish like a condiment ?

                        2. Paul: That does actually sound exactly like the sort of thing I'd like - sounds like I have another something for my xmas list :D

                          Sorry I couldn't actually reply to your post - I think CH is broken :(

                          1. Interesting, somewhat related, article on Worcestershire sauce from today's NY TIMES: