Ciao, dear readers of Italian Cooking and Living! When pondering the question, “What is garum?“, we’re transported to the heart of ancient Rome, where culinary traditions were as rich as their empires.
Garum, a fermented fish sauce, was a vital ingredient in ancient Greek and Roman cooking. It was a savory elixir, known for its rich umami qualities, that added depth and complexity to dishes. The use of garum dates back to as early as the 7th and 8th centuries B.C., becoming a preferred alternative to salt.
Centuries Old Production Process
The production of garum was a feat in itself. Fresh fish entrails were placed in vats, layered with salt, sometimes herbs, and then pressed with a stone to extract the essence.
The mixture was left to ferment for months, during which the fish would disintegrate, releasing a potent, acrid-smelling brine. This brine was then strained, bottled, and carefully sealed, resulting in garum — an umami bomb of a condiment.
The Ancient Roman Ketchup?
Garum was to the Romans what ketchup is to modern American cuisine. It was so popular that it led to the establishment of the first large-scale factory industry in the ancient world. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that the city of Pompeii was one of the largest producers of garum.
Despite the widespread love for garum, its production was not for the faint of heart. The strong odor emitted during fermentation was so overpowering that laws were passed to keep garum factories away from urban areas. This might explain why, despite its popularity, few garum production sites have been discovered.
From Ancient Rome to Modern Kitchens
The legacy of garum lived on long after the fall of the Roman Empire. Today, it is seen in the Asian condiments like nam pla in Thailand, nuoc mam in Vietnam, and tuk trey in Cambodia. Even in Italy, there are contemporary versions of garum, known as colatura d’alici, made with whole anchovies.
Garum Vs Fish Sauce
Now, you might be wondering about the difference between garum and the modern-day fish sauce.
While both are fermented fish products, there are a few key differences. The most significant difference is the fish used. Garum was traditionally made with mackerel, later also sardines, or anchovies, while Asian fish sauces are typically made with a single type of fish.
In fact, the ancient preparation of garum involved securing “the blood of a still-gasping mackerel” which was then mixed with salt, and later left to ferment for as long as three months
So yes, another difference lies in the fermentation process. Garum was fermented in open vats for months, while modern fish sauces are usually fermented in closed containers. This difference in fermentation methods can lead to distinct flavors, with garum having a more robust and complex flavor profile.
Garum in Contemporary Cuisine
Today, garum has made a comeback in modern kitchens. Renowned chefs across the globe, like René Redzepi of Noma, are experimenting with their own versions of garum, using a variety of ingredients ranging from beef to squid, and even bee pollen.
In San Francisco, at the acclaimed restaurants Saison and Angler, culinary director Paul Chung uses garum as a secret weapon to add a depth of flavor to dishes. From dry-aged amberjack crudo to aged Wagyu, garum lends a unique umami profile that leaves diners wondering, “Mmm, what is that?”.
Even in Australia, chefs are venturing into garum-making. Ben Devlin of Pipit in Pottsville is known for his seafood-based garums, including prawn head and oyster garum. He also makes a vegan sauce using green garlic, following similar fermentation techniques.
How to Make It?
Given the resurgence of garum, it’s only natural for the adventurous home cook to want to try making it. However, making garum requires patience and a keen understanding of fermentation. It’s important to remember that the process involves a certain level of risk, as improper handling can lead to bacterial growth.
Here’s a simplified step-by-step guide to making your own garum:
- Preparation: Gather fresh fish entrails or whole small fish like sardines or anchovies. You’ll also need a large amount of salt — ideally sea salt.
- Layering: In a large vat or container, create a layer of salt. Add a layer of fish on top of the salt. Repeat these layers until the vat is full, ending with a layer of salt.
- Fermentation: Place a heavy object on top of the layered mixture to press down and aid in the extraction of liquids. Leave the vat in a sunny spot to ferment for several months.
- Straining: After the fermentation period, strain off the liquid. This is your garum. Bottle it and seal it well.
- Usage: Remember, garum is a potent condiment. Use it sparingly to add depth and umami to your dishes.
If you’re contemplating making your own garum, it’s essential to keep safety in mind. Improper fermentation can lead to harmful bacterial growth.
As Paul Chung of Saison and Angler advises, it’s better to start with a lean meat product rather than an oily fish to reduce the risk of rancidity.
It’s safe to say that garum is enjoying a renaissance in today’s culinary world. As our understanding and appreciation of umami grow, so does our interest in this ancient condiment. From high-end restaurant kitchens to home cooks, garum is being explored and embraced for its unique flavor-enhancing properties.
In the end, the allure of garum lies in its ability to add that extra dimension to dishes, that elusive umami that leaves people wondering, What is Garum?. Well, now you know. It’s just a few shakes of ancient fish sauce, a nod to the culinary wisdom of our ancestors, and a testament to the timeless appeal of umami.
So, the next time you’re savoring a dish with an unexpected depth of flavor, remember garum and its fascinating journey from ancient Roman vats to modern kitchens.
And who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired to add a dash of garum to your own culinary creations, continuing the legacy of this ancient condiment.
After all, as we often say here at Italian Cooking and Living, the joy of Italian cuisine lies in its rich history and the stories behind every ingredient, just like garum.