With fermented foods trending, the time has come for garum, an ancient Roman fish sauce, to break out as one of the next Italian superstars.
Also known as liquamen or colatura di alici in southern Italy, garum – the liquid byproduct of anchovies and other fish fermented in the sun with salt and oftentimes herbs – was a popular condiment in Roman cuisine. Some 2,000 years ago, during its heyday, garum was the equivalent of ketchup – a catch-all seasoning.
Food historians and archaeologists have documented the prevalence of garum in cities such as Pompeii, where the amber-colored sauce was stored in tall urns. The production of garum, however, ceased after the fall of the Roman Empire, practically erasing it from existence.
As U.S. chefs have become more enamored with umami over the last several years, they’ve been rediscovering garum. Those who have tasted and worked with garum are blown away by its umami-rich flavor and how it wakes up and balances dishes, from chicken and pasta to grains and salads. Like Asian fish sauce, it smells bad but tastes great.
Interested in checking out garum? Consider the following:
- Check out the price. Garum isn’t cheap, at around $30 for 10 milliliters at retail, so find out if your purveyor can secure a better price.
- Try Asian fish sauce. Chefs admit that soy sauce and fish sauce have been secret ingredients for years in their non-Asian dishes. If you like the results of Vietnamese nuoc mam or Thai nam pla, go for garum.
- Try Worcestershire sauce. The main ingredients are the same, though the flavor profiles are different. We’re talking umami, so it’s worth experimenting.
- Make your own. Anchovies are the most common fish used in garum, but mackerel, smelt and sardines can work, too. Herbs, such as thyme, oregano and rosemary, can also be added. Follow fermentation techniques for the best results.
- Remember that garum is a flavor enhancer, so less is definitely more. A few drops in a vinaigrette or a light splash in a sauce or marinade are all you may need.