What was Roman fish sauce (garum) like?

I’ve read a lot of historical novels set in ancient Rome – by Lindsey Davis, John Maddox Roberts, Steven Saylor – and one thing they often mention in their descriptions of daily life is a fish-derived sauce known as garum or liquamen, sometimes called “fish pickle.” Apparently, to the Romans this stuff was like ketchup, they put it on everything. But what was it like? From the novels I’ve always pictured it as something like anchovy paste. But I’ve seen “fish sauce” in Vietnamese restaurants that’s nothing like that, it’s a clear liquid (that tastes like fish).

(Not sure if this belongs in CS or GQ – I’m putting it here since it’s about cuisine.)

Place a layer of herbs that have a strong aroma (dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano) into a large pitcher.

Remove the bones from the fish and mash them. Place a layer of fish on top of the herbs.

Add a layer of salt to the length of two fingers.

Repeat the layers of herbs, fish and salt until he pitcher is filled.

Leave for seven days, then turn daily for the next twenty days, by which time it should have liquidised and is then ready for use.

Sounds like a sauce to me.

All my reference materials say the closest modern analog is nuoc mam.

Fish sauce is a clear liquid? Is that a common thing in the US? Over here, it’s brown.

Maybe the Roman sauce was like worcestershire sauce - only a small amount of fish in it to give it a unique taste. I’d imagine that something with a high percentage of fish would go off in a very short time and cause massive bouts of food poisoning…

I see my WAG has been contradicted. I’ll get back in my box now…


Here’s a recipe:

–From “Geoponica” (20.46.1-6), as cited by Robert I. Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (New York: E. J. Brill, 1991):
from here

…except fish sauce has already gone off. Plus it’s so salty as to make it severely hypertonic. So it keeps for a long time. That’s probably why the romans made it, as a way of preserving fish that were otherwise too small to keep.

silenus , are you sure about removing the bones? I do know you need to keep the entrails in, because it’s chiefly enzymatic auto-digestion that does the breakdown of the fish.

When I cook Roman, I use a dark brown Thai fish sauce, but if you really want to try the authentic taste, there’s an italian company that still makes the real thing, Roman-Style . Of course, the dolphin on the bottle is suspicious :dubious: . Just google for colatura di alici to find suppliers.

The recipe I found called for de-boning. Of course, if you let it set as long as Worchestershire sauce does, the bones dissolve anyway. :smiley:

From what I understand, the smell was horrendous. Modern folk probably couldn’t stand it.

Brain Glutton, if you’re into Ancient Rome, I HIGHLY recommend the Masters of Roma series by Colleen McCullough. She did 12 years of research before she started writing. I have the entire series, she recently wrote the last one, and they are magnificent.

Don’t the Japanes have a similar sauce? I seem to remember a description of it in King Rat by James Clavell.

Sorry, that should be Master of Rome

Whatever this stuff is like, I bet Opus would love it!

OPUS (trying to impress Lola Granola): Well, yeah, I have lots of talents . . . For instance, I can snarfle 15 pints of herring entrails in one go! While standing on my head!!

LOLA: Really?

OPUS: mph!

NO, NO, NO . . .

12 pints. I was embellishing.

I’ve read them all – I just didn’t mention McCullough in the OP because I couldn’t remember her mentioning garum. Maybe once or twice.

Another book with a lot about garum is Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.

It was pretty much the same kind of thing as Thai fish sauce…the liquid left over from salted fermented fish.