All the pieces You Ever Wished to Know About Garum

An ancient Greek woman wearing a toga reclines while dangling a fish from her fingers; in front of and behind her are tall brick-red vases. Illustration.
Sophia Pappas

A culinary star in historical Rome, this fermented fish sauce transforms every thing it touches

Extraordinarily tasty and regularly misunderstood, garum is a fermented fish sauce that traces its origins again to Roman instances. Over the course of greater than a dozen centuries, it has managed to maintain its affect within the culinary world, even when its preparation technique might have modified: Not like the Romans, at this time’s garum makers don’t usually use enormous portions of fish and salt and seawater to arrange it, a lot much less stone tanks. Whereas the designation “garum” has been used (usually incorrectly) to outline fish sauces obtained from fermentation with out salt, true garum is as related as ever, beloved by cooks all through the world for its sturdy, umami-rich flavors: With only a few drops of it, you get an entire new dish.

So what’s garum, precisely?

Pliny the Elder was one of many first to outline garum — which he referred to as an “beautiful liquid” — as “a selection liquor consisting of the center of fish and the opposite elements that may in any other case be thought of refuse.” At present, fermentation guru Sandor Katz describes it as “a classical Roman identify for fermented fish sauce,” one that’s “fairly much like up to date Southeast Asian fish sauces, solely usually utilizing much less salt, leading to a fair funkier taste.” Colatura di Alici, a lightweight amber liquid constructed from fermented, salted anchovies that’s nonetheless produced on the Amalfi Coast, is taken into account a direct inheritor of garum, whose reputation and mass manufacturing considerably declined with the autumn of the Roman empire.

How is garum made?

A preferred condiment in historical Rome — it has been referred to as the ketchup of the Roman world — garum was initially made with small fish like sardines and mackerel, together with brine and loads of time. As individuals started making garum in several areas of the world, fragrant herbs, spices, and even wine had been added to the components.

Earlier than we get into garum’s conventional preparation technique — and the way it influenced extra up to date ones — it’s price mentioning that historical fish sauces generally is a little tough. Since garum has meant various things at totally different instances, some historic context is so as.

There’s a lot confusion and contradiction amongst fashionable students (archaeologists, nutritionists, ichthyologists) about the usage of the time period “garum” — one thing that has solely develop into extra complicated as fashionable cooks have hooked up it to all types of fermented sauces that they develop of their eating places, utilizing elements as assorted as oysters, greens, and even egg whites.

The supply of the confusion can itself be traced again to historical Rome. Together with garum, which has origins in Greek and Phoenician cooking, the Romans made liquamen, a special type of fish sauce. Liquamen “functioned each as a basic salt seasoning in cooking and as an ingredient [in] compound dressings that had been served as dips and likewise poured over cooked meat, fish, and ready dishes,” meals historian Sally Grainger explains in The Story of Garum, a e-book that many consultants contemplate the topic’s bible. In keeping with Grainger, an authority on historical Roman meals whose work has concerned analyzing and experimentally recreating the fish sauces of Roman delicacies, garum’s use as a cooking ingredient was comparatively restricted.

Three small fish sit on a white plate in front of a tall vase containing dark liquid. Illustration.
Sophia Pappas

Making garum was an odiferous activity ascribed to Roman slaves and laborers. They gutted small fish, then threw every thing — guts, bones, and all — into stone tanks or giant clay pots referred to as amphorae, and lined them with brine made by combining totally different quantities of salt and seawater. The following fermentation course of, which may take virtually a yr, relied on the solar to make micro organism from the fish’s guts break down its flesh, turning it right into a thick liquid. The Latin phrase “garum” referred particularly to a pre-fermented sauce of blood and viscera, Grainger explains in her e-book, “moderately than a basic time period” for fermented fish sauce.

It’s the strategy of chemical decomposition that permits garum to develop its complicated taste. Because the fish’s intestinal micro organism unfold by its physique, they provoke the fermentation course of, which in flip transforms the fish proteins into amino acids like glutamic acid and glutamate, giving the garum its sturdy umami style.

How was garum used within the kitchen?

“It is rather tough to find out exactly the way it was used,” Grainger writes. “There are hints that garum was a desk sauce that was poured onto meals, its black shiny look could have made it significantly seen to elite customers.”

All through Roman instances, garum was bought at totally different grades and costs, relying on the fish used and the focus of the liquid — the thinner the higher, and dearer. Weaker variations of the sauce went to extra modest kitchens and the Roman military. It was used as a flavoring agent for pork, fish, and even wine, and likewise mixed with elements akin to pepper, vinegar, and oil to create new compound condiments. And since it was constructed from fish, it was additionally thought of a supply of protein. Over time, garum grew to become so important to the traditional Roman palate {that a} community of commerce routes was established from totally different locations such because the Iberian Peninsula, Mediterranean Sea, and North Africa, the place large-scale manufacturing websites had been constructed to produce the Roman yearning for liters and liters of the smelly relish.

How are fashionable cooks recreating garum?

Sandor Katz explains that many up to date cooks use the identify garum to explain sauces constructed from fermenting seafood, animals, bugs, and even greens with salt and koji, the Japanese identify for grains inoculated with the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. “These could be splendidly scrumptious, however are a departure from the normal garum,” Katz factors out.

On the fermentation lab at René Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant Noma, koji is among the elements used to create totally different variations of garum. They’re brewed in a heat resolution of koji rice. “Once we first began exploring these conventional processes, we realized that there was a possibility for us to make use of different elements to provide highly effective flavors as nicely,” explains Jason White, the restaurant’s director of fermentation.

Since at the least 2014, Noma’s fermentation crew has created garum from elements as disparate as beef, rooster wings, varied greens, smoked mushrooms, and egg whites. “We had been extremely fascinated,” White says, “with how changing meat with greens may give us totally different and fascinating sauces.”

Together with its potential to interrupt down proteins into free amino acids (which create umami taste), koji additionally helped to create sauces that had been highly effective however nonetheless delicate. “We came upon that by not utilizing guts and the blood [like the Romans did], we may focus extra on the flesh, which gave us cleaner flavors, so we began naturally utilizing koji as an alternative of the pure enzymes discovered within the meat,” White says. One other benefit of koji is that it yields much less salty garums, “Flavorwise,” he provides, “you get extra from the elements and never simply salt, which additionally makes garum an extremely versatile product.”

Many different eating places make garum from a mix of protein, water, salt, and koji. “The koji is the largest variable, not simply if it’s rice, barley, or one other grain, however the way in which that we develop it or drag it out of the [fermentation] course of,” explains Trey Smith, the co-chef and co-owner of the New Orleans restaurant Saint-Germain. “The method modified from batch to batch as we made changes, tasted the distinction, and recorded enter and output alongside the way in which”.

So what do cooks search for in a garum?

Smith searches for umami-rich sauces that replicate the flavour of what he’s seasoning on the restaurant. “For instance, we’ll season roasted lamb with a lamb garum or we’ll poach lobster in a lobster garum butter to amplify the pure taste,” he explains. “Lamb garum ought to style virtually like a roasted lamb extract. Fish sauce and soy sauce can add umami to a dish, however typically it modifications the general taste profile in a means you don’t need. Seasoning a steak with beef garum simply makes it style much more like beef.” The meat garum, Smith provides, is made with “koji that we’ve grown just a little slower than the one we use for different garums. It leads to a sauce that’s nutty, bitter, candy, and tastes ‘roasted.’”

What are a few of the different methods cooks are utilizing garum?

The purposes of garum are as huge as its flavors: Eating places have been utilizing it in soups, sauces, meat, and even cocktails. Pere Planagumà, the chef of Les Cols in Girona, Spain, turns Cantabrian anchovies into his personal model of garum, referred to as Escata, that he recommends utilizing with rice, pasta, cheese, potato chips, and varied desserts.

Dessert can also be the vacation spot for the garum that Josh Niland, the chef of the Sydney restaurant Saint Peter, makes from the heads, bones, and scraps of small fish like sardines and mackerel; he makes use of it to taste the caramel he places in tarts and different candy dishes.

Elsewhere, cooks use garum to complete a wide range of dishes and as a base for sauces and condiments that deliver out the flavour of grilled meats and uncooked greens alike.

Should you’re not a chef, the place can you purchase garum, and how will you use it?

Because of specialty shops and Amazon, it’s potential to purchase garum from all around the world. Zingerman’s, for instance, sells a garum colatura anchovy sauce imported from Italy. From Andalusia, Spain — an necessary former website for garum manufacturing — Matiz’s Flor de Garum is a premium sauce made solely utilizing anchovies, salt, and spices (from oregano to black pepper). You can too discover Pere Planagumà’s Escata garum, which is made with Cantabrian anchovies, on-line. And Noma Tasks’ smoked mushroom and egg white garums are set to be launched on-line someday this winter. When you get your arms on some garum, begin experimenting with it. Whereas it’s good to start out gradual, utilizing only some drops at a time, simply keep in mind: The world is your fermented anchovy.

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and meals author dwelling between Brazil and Portugal. Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.

Leave a Comment