“Garum has long been considered the dodo of gastronomic history.”
October 27, 2021 3:08 AM   Subscribe

Culinary Detectives Try to Recover the Formula for a Deliciously Fishy Roman Condiment is an article by Taras Grescoe about recent attempts to recreate the Roman Empire’s most beloved sauce, garum (previouslies on MeFi). In Spain and Portugal, you can now buy it in stores, but the problem is that it’s “liquamen”, one of two different garum sauces, while the other, “garum sociorum”, remains a mystery. Grescoe posted a Twitter thread on how to make homemade liquamen. [via Cheryl Morgan]
posted by Kattullus (46 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
I love Garum reconstruction efforts!

But we have to think of garum like we would salt, or soy sauce.

Or… any of the Asian fish sauces? They aren’t the same, but it’s not like garum is some unheard-of kind of food. Heck, even Worcestershire sauce is a distant cousin!
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:56 AM on October 27, 2021 [27 favorites]


Or… any of the Asian fish sauces?

This is covered a bit further down:
Still, Grainger offers accessible options for those eager to get an idea of what ancient Roman fish sauces tasted like. She singles out Red Boat, a brand of Vietnamese nuoc mam nhi made with black anchovies and salt, and no sweeteners, as the closest thing on the market to liquamen; it is widely available in various grocery stores. Grainger also believes she has located a modern analogue to garum sociorum. For at least 300 years, a similar sauce, ishiri, has been made in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture from the fermented blood and viscera of squid. Opaque and rich in proteins, ishiri has the same metallic taste she detected in her experiments with mackerel. Like garum sociorum, it is meant to be used as a condiment, rather than in the cooking process.
And now I'm off to get my hands on ishiri!
posted by vacapinta at 5:28 AM on October 27, 2021 [19 favorites]


Looking forward to far-future culino-archeologists working to reconstruct a recipe for the mysterious “ketchup” from a packaging label that does not detail what is meant by “natural flavour” and “spices”. The question of “high fructose corn syrup” they will of course be familiar with from other areas of scholarly inquiry.
posted by saturday_morning at 5:40 AM on October 27, 2021 [35 favorites]


Ketchup experiment #331: This can't be right, because when we place the resulting paste into a reconstructed container matching the artifact in size and shape, it gets stuck in there and cannot be dispensed onto food.
posted by fritley at 5:58 AM on October 27, 2021 [110 favorites]


I always figured the garum thing was the ancient equivalent of the modern soldier's ubiquitous bottle of hot sauce. When the food tastes like steamed yoga mats, you can at least make it taste like yoga mats and Tabasco.
Hey Maximus. Bland boiled barley for rations again!? Try this-now it's boiled barley and salted anchovy juice, or whatever. At least it tastes like something. Or something familiar, if you're posted way out at the frontier and you just can't get used to this Dalmatian food; splash some garum on it.
posted by bartleby at 5:59 AM on October 27, 2021 [27 favorites]


Slightly OT but being given barley to eat was a punishment in the Roman legions:
If the same thing ever happens to large bodies, and if entire maniples desert their posts when exceedingly hard pressed, the officers refrain from inflicting death by cudgeling (where the soldiers would beat their compatriots to death) or the death penalty on all, but find a solution of the difficulty which is both salutary and terror-striking. The tribune assembles the legion, and brings up those guilty of leaving the ranks, reproaches them sharply, and finally chooses by lots sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes twenty of the offenders, so adjusting the number thus chosen that they form as near as possible the tenth part of those guilty of cowardice. Those on whom the lot falls are beaten mercilessly in the manner above described; the rest receive rations of barley instead of wheat and are ordered to encamp outside the camp on an unprotected spot. As therefore the danger and dread of drawing the fatal lot affects all equally, as it is uncertain on whom it will fall; and as the public disgrace of receiving barley rations falls on all alike, this practice is that best calculated both to inspire fear and to correct the mischief.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:52 AM on October 27, 2021 [12 favorites]


This is great but I'm holding out for someone discovering a long-forgotten cache of silphium seeds.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:15 AM on October 27, 2021 [36 favorites]


Entertainingly, ketchup has far-East derivation too, the Malaysian and Indonesian kecap manis. Tomatoes weren't part of the recipe, but they had that sweet-salty-savory mix. Sometimes it seems like every good clever sauce has an east Asian analogue. Except mayonnaise, which the Japanese cheerfully adopted as soon as they had an opportunity to.

(Also, Red Boat fish sauce is worth the premium price, and totally believable as an analogue of a mythical ancient condiment. I use regular Squid or Three Crabs for my improv stirfries, but for a pure and clean fishiness, Red Boat's the only choice.)
posted by jackbishop at 7:15 AM on October 27, 2021 [9 favorites]


Also, many Romans enjoyed eating an uncooked and fermented fish sauce called garum. "Roman enthusiasm" for garum may explain why fish tapeworm parasites were so common in the empire, as the parasites live in fish.
Ancient Rome Was Infested with Human Parasites, Poop Shows

See also

Parasitic Infections Common in Roman Times
posted by y2karl at 7:38 AM on October 27, 2021 [13 favorites]


There's an anchovy fish sauce made on the Amalfi coast that's relatively easy to get now from a few vendors: Colatura di Alici. Amazon carries it, as do many specialty food vendors. There are a few companies that make it.

It made the rounds of the blogs and cuisine magazines a few years ago, e.g., Serious Eats. There's no way to know if it's close to historical Garum. It does trace back to monastic manufacture several hundred years at least.
posted by bonehead at 8:06 AM on October 27, 2021 [8 favorites]


Now I have a mission to find ishiri at Mitsuwa!

I should also check out Red Boat, but I'll probably just find it watered down and a bit sweet, because to me fish sauce is patis, and patis is strong enough that it isn't often served as is as a dipping sauce (go to mix was with calamansi lime, here a regular lime or lemon works, vinegar, too), and is regularly used as an ingredient in cooking.
posted by linux at 8:12 AM on October 27, 2021


Red Boat is my go-to cheat mode addition to anything savory. Umami amplification for all!
posted by Lord_Pall at 8:25 AM on October 27, 2021 [7 favorites]


Thanks for that reference to Colatura di alici, bonehead. I was having a hard time believing the whole concept of fish sauce was lost to Europeans, especially since fermented fish has a long continuity from Sicily to Sweden. There's an industrialization in fish sauce production that I can see fading away but the idea of it must be persistent. Worcestershire sauce is another echo of garum, although it has a lot of other flavors too and (per Wikipedia) is a 19th century invention.

I regularly use SE Asian fish sauce, usually Red Boat, in European cooking. Just a dash or two for something like a beef stew brings a lot of flavor. There's nothing magic about Red Boat, btw, it's just high quality, more fish than salt, better than the cheap imports that we usually find in the US. Same thing goes for soy sauce: a high quality product like Kishibori Shoyu is so much better than the cheap stuff.

I've always wondered if the "garam" in "garam masala" had some connection to Roman "garum". Maybe not; the sources I can find suggest the Hindi word गरम means "hot". (Hindi speakers help me out; that's hot temperature, not spicy?) There's a Malay word "garam" which means "salt" but the etymology seems different from the Latin word. It's evocative that there's three words all sounding very similar that all refer to savory food flavorings, but it may well be a coincidence.
posted by Nelson at 8:29 AM on October 27, 2021 [3 favorites]


I really like garum sociorum ("friends' sauce"?) as a name for a sauce. What if there was garum sociorum and it was just for your buds.
posted by grobstein at 9:22 AM on October 27, 2021 [6 favorites]


I confess I have not RFA yet but Mark Kurlansky talks a lot about garum in the opening chapters of his wide ranging "Salt: A World History".
posted by hearthpig at 9:23 AM on October 27, 2021 [2 favorites]


I really like garum sociorum ("friends' sauce"?) as a name for a sauce. What if there was garum sociorum and it was just for your buds.

You and a group of friends could start a club for sampling sauces and call yourselves the Taste Buds
posted by an octopus IRL at 9:24 AM on October 27, 2021 [36 favorites]


Looked the etymology thing up out of curiosity; if Wiktionary can be trusted, Hindi "garam" goes back via Persian "garm" to Proto-Indo-European "gʷʰor-mó-s". This also comes out in Ancient Greek as "thermos", and is related to a bunch of words in Latin like "formus" and "fornus", but Latin "garum" isn't part of this same family; it's from the Greek "garon", which refers to the fish.
posted by wanderingmind at 9:27 AM on October 27, 2021 [8 favorites]


Reading this made me hungry.
posted by limeonaire at 9:34 AM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]


The Noma Guide to Fermentation has several garum recipes to try (I have yet to do so myself, but am hoping to try it soon and become the equivalent of an Eagle Scout in fermenting).
posted by ikahime at 10:04 AM on October 27, 2021 [4 favorites]


"Tasty fish-es-es," said Smeagol. "Garum!"
posted by SPrintF at 10:17 AM on October 27, 2021 [13 favorites]


Only tangentially relevant, but my favourite find from Pompeii is the jars of kosher garum.
Also, Max Miller had a go at it, although the method apparently had to be modified for condo living.
posted by BlueNorther at 12:02 PM on October 27, 2021 [10 favorites]


Sohla El-Waylly made her own attempt to make garam with help from the aforementioned Mr. Miller.
posted by Eikonaut at 12:34 PM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]


Only tangentially relevant, but my favourite find from Pompeii is the jars of kosher garum

I don’t think that’s tangential at all, BlueNorther, because I haven’t seen much discussion of the organisms responsible for the actual fermentation process here or in the links, and I think any assumption that the cocktail of organisms we use today and the ones the ancients used are the same or even broadly similar is highly questionable at best.

So something like PCR analysis of those jars from Pompeii and an attempt to replicate what's found there would be the only credible way to claim we’ve replicated the taste.

And the stuff was probably an extremely potent probiotic as well. In the Sohla video you and Eikonaut link, Max Miller points our that it was used as a wound dressing and also as an enema.
posted by jamjam at 1:41 PM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]




I haven’t seen much discussion of the organisms responsible for the actual fermentation process here or in the links

It's lactobacillus, the standard bacteria for most fermentation. From the first link
The presence of salt slows this fermentation process, promoting lactic acid bacteria that defeat pathogens and such foul-smelling toxins as cadaverine and putrescine.
The linked Twitter thread is a very ordinary salt fermentation with the added wrinkle that it's not strictly airtight. This is how fermentation has been working for thousands of years. Wild lactobacillus is all you need, it's omnipresent. There may be some minor variations of exactly which strain of LAB is involved but that doesn't have a major effect on the result.

The magic of fermentation is at the right salt level and without much oxygen, the LAB outcompete all the other nasty things that could grow in the food. (Botulism is your main concern.) And in a few days raises the acidity enough to further discourage growth of anything else. It's a nearly foolproof process.
posted by Nelson at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2021 [3 favorites]


Lactobacillus is an entire genus:
Lactobacillus is a genus of Gram-positive, aerotolerant anaerobes or microaerophilic, rod-shaped, non-spore-forming bacteria.[2][3] Until March 2020, the genus Lactobacillus comprised over 260 phylogenetically, ecologically, and metabolically diverse species; a taxonomic revision of the genus in 2020 assigned lactobacilli to 25 genera (see § Taxonomy below).[3]
Even if there were no other bacteria, no fungi, and no Protozoans involved in making Garum — a proposition which seems extremely doubtful to me — we wouldn’t know what Garum tasted like without being able to specify the strains the Romans used.
posted by jamjam at 3:49 PM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]


Isn't the point that the Romans didn't add any kind of culture to this fermentation, but only used the organisms present in and on the fish, and possibly the herbs, already (plus possibly remainders in the fermentation vessel from previous fermentations). Maybe environmental conditions have changed significantly such that the microbiome present is somewhat different but things probably haven't changed so much that the flavour would be completely different. After all, something like sauerkraut or kimchi may vary somewhat in flavour from one producer or place to another, but it's not like they are all completely different from one another because they use wild lactobacillus.

For garum, it would be quite likely that the flavour would have varied from place to place, producer to producer and even batch to batch in Roman times, so there isn't going to be one true garum flavour based on a specific mix of organisms.
posted by ssg at 4:25 PM on October 27, 2021 [4 favorites]


Ancient Rome Was Infested with Human Parasites, Poop Shows

It took me way too long to figure out that “Poop Shows” weren’t some kind of decadent entertainment extravaganza at the court of Caligula.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:27 PM on October 27, 2021 [8 favorites]


Also, the very high salt concentrations involved (17%-25% based on the two sources here) are going to select for a pretty small group of organisms that can actually tolerate that kind of salt concentration. Your average lactobacillus is not going to fare very well in those conditions.
posted by ssg at 4:29 PM on October 27, 2021


Wallemia ichthyophaga, for example, is a widely occurring halophilic fungus known to contaminate "salted meat", the very name of which suggests it was isolated from salted fish.

The Smithsonian link mentions that Garum was brewed in open top vessels on harborside docks, so I think it would be very good candidate for presence in ancient Garum.
posted by jamjam at 4:42 PM on October 27, 2021


Halophilia is not exclusive to only a few kinds of bacteria:
Halophiles are microorganisms that require certain concentrations of salt to survive, and they are found in both Eubacterial and Archaeal domains of life. In Eubacteria, halophiles are a very heterogeneous group, having members in at least eight different phyla.
posted by jamjam at 4:59 PM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]


"Max Miller points our that it was used as a wound dressing and also as an enema."

I don't know what I expected from this thread but the body-horror version of the "it's a dessert topping and a floor wax" joke was not it.
posted by mhoye at 5:36 PM on October 27, 2021 [11 favorites]


I wonder which is more unpleasant: a Garum enema or a Lysol douche.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:56 PM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]


I spent a lot of time over the last year trying out different sauces -- Colatura, Red Boat, etc -- with old Roman recipes to try to figure out what garum might have tasted like. Super interesting.

I really like garum sociorum ("friends' sauce"?) as a name for a sauce. What if there was garum sociorum and it was just for your buds.

According to Sally Grainger's The Story of Garum, the 'friends' in this case might be that the garum is made with blood and viscera of mullet, used in the process of cooking/poaching/killing more mullet -- in other words, made with the fish's friends.

So something like PCR analysis of those jars from Pompeii and an attempt to replicate what's found there would be the only credible way to claim we’ve replicated the taste.

Grainger's book goes into detail on the research that has been done on the garum residue from Pompeii to build flavour profiles based on the amino acids and minerals present.
posted by Jairus at 7:12 PM on October 27, 2021 [5 favorites]


I spent a lot of time over the last year trying out different sauces -- Colatura, Red Boat, etc -- with old Roman recipes to try to figure out what garum might have tasted like.

Replying to myself here just to say that this rabbit hole is in fact endless, because we know so little about the other ingredients involved. Silphium is extinct, so you use asafetida because it was considered a substitute at the time. We know garum was usually mixed with wine, but we don't know what Roman wine was like, and we know they often mixed several wines with Garum to balance it out. So now you have to find a raisin wine made using certain methods to mix with your Garum made in a modern way to add to your spices which are substitutes of spices that don't exist anymore....

With all of that said, I have made some of the most interesting and delicious food of my entire life in the last year. Turns out the famously gluttonous Romans knew how to cook! And adding garum/oxygarum to other foods has been a super fruitful experiment. Add a couple tablespoons of Colatura to your slow cooker the next time you make pulled pork, and it'll be the best pork you've ever had.
posted by Jairus at 7:25 PM on October 27, 2021 [7 favorites]


Grainger's book goes into detail on the research that has been done on the garum residue from Pompeii to build flavour profiles based on the amino acids and minerals present.

Amino acids do have flavors, but apparently not overwhelmingly strong flavors.

However, microbial catabolism of amino acids does produce very strong flavors:
Microbial catabolism of amino acids produces flavour compounds of importance for foods such as cheese, wine and fermented sausages. Lactic acid bacteria are equipped with enzyme systems for using the amino acids in their metabolism and are useful for flavour formation of foods. Branched-chain amino acids (Leu, Ile, Val) are converted into compounds contributing to malty, fruity and sweaty flavours; catabolism of aromatic amino acids (Phe, Tyr, Trp) produce floral, chemical and faecal flavours; aspartic acid (Asp) is catabolised into buttery flavours and sulphuric amino acids (Met, Cys) are transferred into compounds contributing to boiled cabbage, meaty and garlic flavours.
So I continue to think that the actual microbial species which did the fermenting, and the balance of those species, is of paramount importance in attempting to replicate the flavor of ancient Garum.
posted by jamjam at 7:46 PM on October 27, 2021 [5 favorites]


I’m pretty sure there actually is something magical about Red Boat; the other day my picky eight year old declared “papa, I really love your salads” and my partner was forced to grudgingly agree that I win at parenting. The secret? Red Boat in the vinaigrette. Also, you can add Red Boat to pretty much any other common condiment and it will become a better condiment.
posted by lastobelus at 8:38 PM on October 27, 2021 [5 favorites]


Add a couple tablespoons of Colatura to your slow cooker the next time you make pulled pork, and it'll be the best pork you've ever had.

It's not the same profile of flavours exactly, but "chili crisp" offers a similar level of instant deliciousness for eggs, rice and noodle dishes. With a bit of careful label reading (a minority of chili crisps include seafood or even pork), it's entirely possible to do vegetarian and vegan dishes with a similar level of umami hit to what fish sauces bring to meat dishes.

And it can be made at home (YT).
posted by bonehead at 7:07 AM on October 28, 2021 [1 favorite]


...garum is made with blood and viscera of mullet

Billy Ray Cyrus Sauce of Cyrene, in other words?
posted by y2karl at 9:48 AM on October 28, 2021


I guess now is when I reveal the secret ingredient* in my award-winning gose: Red Boat 50°N.

* OK, it wasn't at all secret, inasmuch as I announced it to the homebrew club by telling them I was going to do a southeast-Asian inspired gose, using tamarind to supplement the souring (met with approval), lemongrass for some brightness (still with me), and fish sauce for salinity (nope, everyone thinks I'm a lunatic until they get a chance to taste it).
posted by jackbishop at 9:52 AM on October 28, 2021 [8 favorites]


I like the idea of using fish sauce in a "gose" - being liquid at least gives you a better chance to adjust upwards. (And I feel the looks since I'm infamous for using clams in a saison)
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:48 AM on October 28, 2021


Metafilter: Infamous for using clams in a saison.
posted by Oyéah at 3:15 PM on October 28, 2021 [3 favorites]


Open vessel might mean ampbora with the cork out, and covered with a rag to keep down flies.. moreso than an open barrel. But the reality is it might have been an open barrel where fish entrails were tossed and serially, or continously fermented as a part of selling fish catches and saving the entrails for chum. Maybe this was a byproduct adapted by the poor and soldier class to get some extra nutrition. Maybe the wine was added at home to thin it and sterilize it to a degree, thin it so it could be strained through cloth. Anyway.
posted by Oyéah at 3:26 PM on October 28, 2021


If you like Red Boat (and you will), order their Red Boat spiked caramels from the web site. As if caramels could be any better...yes, yes they can.

Also...Iwashi whiskey barrel aged fish sauce. That is all.
posted by kjs3 at 3:40 PM on October 28, 2021 [2 favorites]


Given how much fermentation technology still varies over time and location these days, I can't imagine garum being made the exact same way, everywhere over the breadth of the days of Rome
posted by drewbage1847 at 3:42 PM on October 28, 2021


rod-shaped, non-spore-forming bacteria

That was my nickname in high school.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:43 PM on October 31, 2021 [4 favorites]


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