Fish sauce has long been a staple of Southeast Asian cooking. Made from fermented fish with sea salt, it has a strong, distinct flavor that enhances all the delicious flavors in Asian cuisine. Easily recognizable as a truly Eastern condiment, it’s fascinating to learn it has ancient roots in Western Europe as well, specifically in ancient Rome.
Ancient Roman fish sauce was made using the same fish and sea salt fermentation process used in Asia and was called garum or liquamen. Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino studies ancient garum and says that remains of garum factories have been found that predate mentions of garum in Roman literature from the 3rd and 4th century BCE. He notes that it was extremely popular throughout the Roman Empire, and though it could be quite expensive it was like wine in that “…a good bottle of garum could cost something like $500 today, but you could also have garum for slaves that was extremely cheap.”
According to Robert I. Curtis in his article In Defense of Garum, another testament to the ubiquitous nature of garum in the ancient Roman Empire is that “The fish sauces could be made in small amounts by individual families, but they were also important by-products in the salting of fish in the many industrial installations which operated throughout the Mediterranean basin.”
Food historian Sally Grainger, co-author of The Classical Cookbook, explains that fish sauce was used not only as an alternate way to salt food, it also became the base for other dips and sauces when it was combined with wine, honey and other spices. Today it is being used in much the same way as modern chefs experiment by adding various herbs and spices to create new, exciting flavors.
It is difficult to find traditional garum today. The more commonly used Italian fish sauce is colatura, a modern descendant of the ancient garum. In his blog MattBites, Chef Matt Armendariz explains that “if garum is the loud in-your-face uncle, colatura is the mannered and finessed younger cousin.” It is made with anchovies and results in a more lightly colored and delicately flavored sauce.
Chef Armendariz is the source of the delicious spaghetti recipe below, but first perhaps you’d like to try your hand at making your own authentic ancient fish sauce! We’ve included two recipes below: one that is authentically ancient and another that is updated and less challenging. When you’re finished making your sauce, follow the spaghetti recipe below for a truly Roman dish. Of course, you can always buy some colatura and skip straight to the spaghetti!
*The garum recipes were adapted courtesy of pbs.org.
Ancient Garum Recipe
- Fatty fish, for example, sardines
- A well-sealed (pitched) container, 26-35 quart capacity
- Dried aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, etc.
- Make a layer of herbs on the bottom of the container.
- Put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces)
- Add a layer of salt two fingers high on top of the fish.
- Repeat the layers until the container is filled.
- Let it rest for seven days in the sun.
- Mix the sauce daily for 20 days until it becomes a liquid. Bottle or jar your sauce.
Modern Garum Recipe (Colatura)
- 1 quart of grape juice
- Two tablespoons of anchovy paste
- One pinch of oregano
- Cook a quart of grape juice, reducing it to one-tenth its original volume.
- Dilute two tablespoons of anchovy paste in the concentrated juice and mix in a pinch of oregano.
Spaghetti with Olive Oil and Colatura (or Garum)
*Recipe is adapted from MattBites.
(Adjust the quantities of ingredients according to your preferences, start with less colatura and add as needed)
- A single serving of spaghetti
- 3 tablespoons high quality olive oil
- 1 tablespoon colatura
- Chopped garlic
- Chopped parsley
- Red chile flakes
- Cook the spaghetti to your liking.
- While spaghetti is cooking, combine remaining ingredients.
- Toss the spaghetti in your prepared sauce.
- Add extra spices and/or colatura as needed.