Extremely tasty and frequently misunderstood, garum is a fermented fish sauce that traces its origins back to Roman times. Over the course of more than a dozen centuries, it has managed to sustain its influence in the culinary world, even if its preparation method may have changed: Unlike the Romans, today’s garum makers don’t typically use huge quantities of fish and salt and seawater to prepare it, much less stone tanks. While the designation “garum” has been used (often incorrectly) to define fish sauces obtained from fermentation without salt, true garum is as relevant as ever, beloved by chefs throughout the world for its robust, umami-rich flavors: With just a few drops of it, you get a whole new dish.
So what is garum, exactly?
Pliny the Elder was one of the first to define garum — which he called an “exquisite liquid” — as “a choice liquor consisting of the guts of fish and the other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse.” Today, fermentation guru Sandor Katz describes it as “a classical Roman name for fermented fish sauce,” one that is “quite similar to contemporary Southeast Asian fish sauces, only typically using less salt, resulting in an even funkier flavor.” Colatura di Alici, a light amber liquid made from fermented, salted anchovies that is still produced on the Amalfi Coast, is considered a direct heir of garum, whose popularity and mass production significantly declined with the fall of the Roman empire.
How is garum made?
A popular condiment in ancient Rome — it has been called the ketchup of the Roman world — garum was originally made with small fish like sardines and mackerel, along with brine and plenty of time. As people began making garum in different regions of the world, aromatic herbs, spices, and even wine were added to the formula.
Before we get into garum’s traditional preparation method — and how it influenced more contemporary ones — it is worth mentioning that ancient fish sauces can be a little tricky. Since garum has meant different things at different times, some historical context is in order.
There is much confusion and contradiction among modern scholars (archaeologists, nutritionists, ichthyologists) about the use of the term “garum” — something that has only become more complex as modern chefs have attached it to all kinds of fermented sauces that they develop in their restaurants, using ingredients as varied as oysters, vegetables, and even egg whites.
The source of the confusion can itself be traced back to ancient Rome. Along with garum, which has origins in Greek and Phoenician cooking, the Romans made liquamen, a different kind of fish sauce. Liquamen “functioned both as a general salt seasoning in cooking and as an ingredient [in] compound dressings that were served as dips and also poured over cooked meat, fish, and prepared dishes,” food historian Sally Grainger explains in The Story of Garum, a book that many experts consider the subject’s bible.