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Fish sauce: garum or liquamen

by Sally Grainger, from her book: Cooking Apicius, used with her kind permission


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Cooking Apicius

Fish sauce — which they called garum or liquamen — is fundamental to Roman food; in fact it is the ingredient that brings all the others together in a harmonious balance. Without it, the many flavours of the spices and liquids would be loud and discordant in the mouth, and the reputation that Roman food has for overpowering seasoning would be all too true.

The taste of fish sauce has recently been identified as the ‘fifth flavour’ alongside sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Umami is the ‘all-round-the-mouth’ meaty taste one gets from mushrooms and monosodium glutamate. It is not just salt flavour, there are all kinds of complex cheesy elements to it too, though the Romans used their fish sauce instead of salt and rarely used salt alone in their savoury or their sweet cooking. The effect of the sauce is not fishy or rotten or rank but immensely satisfying and integral to the cuisine. The Romans cooked with a variety of fermented fish sauces whose distinguishing characteristics can be difficult to understand in the modern world. It is only recently that I have been able to identify and classify the various types with any degree of accuracy. It may be that other food historians will have different opinions as to the nature of these sauces. I would not claim to have solved all the problems of interpretation. If you wish to read more about Roman fish sauce see the excursus on garum and liquamen in the appendix to our edition and translation of the Latin text.

Garum was a sauce made from the fresh blood and viscera of selected fish, mainly mackerel, fermented with salt. As it fermented, the mixture cleared and a dark brine was drawn off that was used at table by the diner (and sometimes in the kitchen). We do not find garum on its own mentioned in Apicius. Experiments we have conducted have produced a sauce with a distinctive blood aroma which makes it quite different from the other fish sauces. It was a relatively high-status condiment and was used in some of the oenogarum sauces that were part of Roman cuisine. However, these sauces using blood garum do not appear in Apicius. I believe its use was predominantly by the diner at table rather than by the cook in the kitchen.

For the purposes of this little book we only really need to know about liquamen. This was made by dissolving whole small fish, as well as larger pieces of gutted fish (including the empty mackerel bodies used to make garum), into a liquor with salt. The fish, often anchovy, were layered with salt in a barrel or pit and left for anything up to four months. The whole mixture cleared from the top and settled into layers. The paste at the bottom was called allec and was used as a pickle in its own right. The liquor was called liquamen.

We know that cleaned fish and slices of fish such as tuna were also salted to preserve them. The salt leaches water out of the flesh in the early stages, and this effusion we can firmly identify as muria, a fish brine. It is quite pale and far less ‘fishy’ than the other fish sauces. We find this form of fish sauce in other food literature but not in Apicius. It appears to have been used predominantly by the lower classes, though this is not at all certain. In Italy, in the Bay of Naples, a modern company reproduces the ancient techniques and makes a liquor from the salting of fish. It resembles many of the Thai fish sauces familiar today and could not be distinguished from them in blind tastings.

We know about a fourth kind of fish sauce made from a mixture of whole small and medium-sized fish with extra blood and viscera. This composite sauce, made by combining the elements of garum and liquamen, was a late development to the culinary tradition dating from the 6th century ad and I do not believe it was used in the recipes of Apicius. If you have some knowledge of fish sauce and you are asking yourself ‘what about..? She has not considered...?’ then please read the article on garum and liquamen in our edition.

For the purposes of reconstructing Roman recipes today we only really have access to the various South East Asian fish sauces. These are similar to liquamen in nature because anchovy and salt are allowed to dissolve together into a liquor. The differences, however, can be crucial. Some of the best Thai fish sauces are fermented for anything up to 18 months. They are also made with a much higher ratio of salt to fish than that indicated for Roman sauces. An ancient sauce was made with one part salt to seven parts fish, while a Thai sauce is made using a ratio of 1: 3 and some times even 1: 1. The length of time required for fermentation is not an issue we can deal with, but the salt can be adjusted to correspond to Roman liquamen. The following recipe produces a suitable blend for the recipes in this book. There are many varieties of fish sauce available and each one is slightly different. Some are very salty, others less so. Some are dark, almost black, while others are quite pale and golden. Still more are blended with sugar. You may only have access to one type and you need to assess its qualities. For our purposes, pale is better than dark and the less salty is also better. Ideally, you should buy a blended variety already slightly sweetened, as this is how the salt levels are adjusted.

Adapted fish sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 l. carton white grape juice
  • 1 bottle ‘Oyster brand’ fish sauce or a pale variety of fish sauce

Preparation

  • Tip the grape juice into a large saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.
  • Cook at the lowest setting for however long it takes to reduce by half. This is never set in stone as grape juice can have a higher or lower sugar content.
  • Cool and store.

You can use this for other recipes in Apicius as well as for your fish sauce. The ratio that works for me is two-thirds fish sauce to one-third grape syrup. This produces a blend that is neither too salty, nor has it lost too much of the cheesy/ meaty elements that you need. You might find that you need to adjust this ratio depending on the type of fish sauce that you have. The darker varieties tend to be saltier but unfortunately this is not always the case! You might try half and half to achieve the correct blend. Experiment! The initial cost is low and well worth the effort in the long run.

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