Garum – Its not as Roman as You Think!

Roman Fish Mosaic
Roman Fish Mosaic

I had the pleasure recently to be a guest on Eat This Podcast with Jeremy Cherfas. On the show, Jeremy and I spoke about the fish sauce garum, how to make it, its origins (not Roman), and its many uses in cooking and as a table condiment. I hope you enjoy the show and consider making some garum for yourself! I also hope that you continue to listen to Eat This Podcast Its a great source of eclectic information about food and cuisines.  Jeremy writes:

Garum is one of those ancient foods that everyone seems to have heard of. It is usually described as “fermented fish guts,” or something equally unappealing, and people often call it the Roman ketchup, because they used it so liberally on so many things. Fermented fish guts is indeed accurate, though calculated to distance ourselves from it. And garum is just one form of fermented fish; there’s also liquamen, muria. allec and haimation. All this I learned from Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet. Unlike most of the people who opine on garum, and who offer recipes for quick garum, she painstakingly created the real deal. She is also convinced that it isn’t really Roman in origin. We only think of it that way because history is written by the victors not the vanquished.  And then there’s the whole question of the Asian fish sauces, Vietnamese nước mắm and the rest of them. Independent discovery, or copied from the Romans?

Other interviews I’ve done are available on the sidebar MP3 Player as well.

Umami in a Bottle: Homemade Garum

Homemade Garum

Here it is, the real deal! Amber-colored culinary gold! The first results from last summer’s backyard garum making!  As some of you may remember, back in June of last year I started making garum in my backyard with fresh mackerel and lots of sea salt.  I also wrote the “garum diaries” until mid-September which described the first 90 days or so of the initial enzymatic digestion of the fish.  I noted the surprising lack of odor despite the process of digestion and blow by blow described the changes in color and consistency in the garum-making vessel.

For the uninitiated, garum is the substance that was produced by the Carthaginians (and likely before by the same people in the Phoenician homelands of the Eastern Mediterranean) It was made from fish and salt and used to add a savory flavor to many foods that was otherwise lacking.  it was used on everything from meat and vegetables to desserts and wine depending on how it was prepared and mixed.  The Romans took over the lucrative garum production facilities from Carthage after conquest, and much of what we now about garum production comes from them.

Basket of Fish for Garum Making

I’ve learned a lot over the months and frankly found that a great deal of what is available on the internet on the production of garum is packed with contradictions.  Part of this is because scholarly work on garum is still in progress and people who study this issue for a living are still making up their minds about what garum is and isnt.

The most recent understanding of the terminology (provided to me by Sally Grainger) is that:  Liquamen refers to the whole-fish sauce made with all the viscera intact and sometimes extra viscera [presumably to speed the digestion process].  The enzymes in the viscera dissolve the fish into a thick sauce which yields a translucent, highly nutritious sauce when it is filtered or diluted.  It can be gathered by skimming the top of the ferment, or by letting it drip out of the paste that has been put in a colander.  It is extremely fishy, oily, and salty and packs a wallop of flavor.   Allec is the solid paste that is left after the liquamen is removed.  The Romans would pick this clean of bones, skin, fins and other fishy solids and use it as a paste on bread or as a condiment.  Given the taste of the allec I produced, I think it would have probably been mixed with olive oil, butter or animal fat to make it more palatable.  By personal choice, I would use butter.  I think then it would taste like country caviar – fresh sweet butter on a hunk of brown bread spread with fresh caviar – or allec. The Romans, however, might have used olive oil.

Muria is the sauce made when the fish are gutted and headed and the liquor that emerges is weak in protein and pale in colour. This probably corresponds best with the modern colatura di alici.  Lastly, there is haimation which is the liquid that is produced from just from blood and viscera.  This is garon haimation in Greek and garum or garum sociorum in Latin. It is black and bloody according to Galen.  .

Garum amphora

Another thing that my experience making garum taught me that varied from much of the historical information available was the quantity of garum produced and the speed at which it can be harvested.  Many of the early writings about garum speak of a basket being dipped into the ferment and the garum flowing into the basket.  Or if a barrel or container were used, directions are to puncture the barrel near the base and let the garum flow off.  This may be true for large-scale production such as those in vats, but it is not true for the casual backyard producer of garum.  With 15 pounds of mackerel and almost nine pounds of salt to start, nothing flows or gushes, it is harvested drip by excruciating drip and then filtered multiple times at the same glacial rate.  It takes patience and persistence – but it is worth it.

The slow speed of my garum harvest may be because of the rather high quantity of salt to fish I wound up using as well.  Its difficult to say with n=1 production experience.

After having produced garum, I am convinced that the few so-called quick recipes for “garum” in the ether cannot possibly produce the product that took nine months to create in my backyard.  These recipes call for the fish and salt to be cooked on the stove top or in a yogurt maker.  I’m not sure what these recipes produce – I suspect it is ordinary fish oil – but do I know that a few hours of heat cannot replace nine months of digestion. Because these authors describe the taste as, “not very fishy”, I know it cannot be garum.  The garum produced by digestion is fishy, salty, and quite oily and only a few drops (vice teaspoons or tablespoons) would be needed to flavor a dish. Even if adapted from historical (usually Byzantine) sources, these quick recipes produce a product that looks like garum, but doesn’t taste like it.  You can’t rush perfection.

Although the production of garum is not smelly, harvesting garum can be, unless steps are taken to minimize the smell.  You must cover containers that are used to harvest and filter the garum, wear old clothes and be prepared to do lots of dishes.  For the sensitive, I suggest surgical gloves – the odor permeates everything and is very hard to get rid of.  Lastly if you share your home with four-legged creatures, you will want to put them out or at least keep them away from the garum – they will be curious, and noisy.

So, what does it look like?  Interestingly, my garum is roughly the same color as its last living relative in the west – colatura di alici – the modern Italian fish sauce made from anchovies.  The garum is a bit more amber in color (as opposed to the colatura’s reddish brown color) even after five filtrations, but the color is much more similar than that of nuoc mam which comes in a variety of shades of dark brown.  The garum is also a bit more viscous than either of the two modern sauces – possibly due to the introduction of water in the modern production process, or possibly due to the different species of fish used.  If you are curious about the possible west-to-east flow of fish-sauce production technology in the ancient world, please see this essay.

So, what does it taste like?  It is saltier, way more fishy and a bit oiler than either the colatura di alici or the nuoc mam.  Garum from mackerel is more powerful as it hits the tongue, has a longer crest of flavor and remains stronger for a longer period of time as it fades. One can taste it in more places in the mouth than the colatura or nuoc mam as well. No matter where you place the garum – the flavor explodes in your mouth.  There is also a slight bitterness to the garum that is absent from the colatura or the nuoc mam.  Interestingly, the nuoc mam has fructose and hydrolyzed vegetable protein listed as ingredients.  These certainly affect the flavor of the sauce – especially the fructose. In short, the colatura and the nuoc mam taste more like each other than like the garum.  The nuoc mam has a more complex flavor than the colatura, but since both are made from anchovies, that probably is because of the added ingredients listed above.  The colatura claims only anchovies and salt as ingredients.  Garum is, without a doubt, umami in a bottle.


Glutamic Acid Formula

A word about umami.  Most of us were raised on the ancient Greek notion of four tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter.  I vividly remember “mapping” these tastes on our tongues in elementary school but placing different substances on different areas of the tongue with a cotton swab.  A combination of modern science and some talented tongues have turned this notion on its head, and research conducted largely in the 20th Century has explained umami for us.  Sort of like a sixth sense, umami is the “fifth taste” and represents savoriness. It is carried in a number of molecules – most notably in glutamic acid that most of us experience in the form of sodium glutamate.  Many foods are rich in glutamic acid – notably ripe tomatoes, celery, cheese, asparagus, meat, fish, and shellfish etc.  Of course, cooks and chefs have been combining these ingredients for years to create savory dishes.  Most notably the renowned western chef Escoffier used an instinctive knowledge of these ingredients for many of his dishes.

Kombu (kelp)

Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese chemist who “discovered” umami worked with kombu a type of seaweed that Japanese cuisine uses in many dishes either as a vegetable or dried and dissolved in broth form with bonito fish flakes as dashi.  Ikeda coined the word “umami” from the Japanese “umai” which means delicious, nice or palatable as well as brothy, meaty or savory.  Both sets of meanings, as you can see, represent important aspects of umami taste perception.

What I find fascinating about umami is how little we truly understand it.  We know it has a flavor of its own – which changes depending how the molecule of glutamic acid is charged – but we suspect that it also changes other flavors to enhance them in a synergistic way.  Additionally, it also add a “mouthfullness” to food that adds to the positive perception of food flavor in the mouth.


Getting back to production, we digested the mackerel in salt in the backyard for nine months.  In the initial stages, we stirred the batch at least once a week, but as the fall and winter passed, the stirring decreased to only a couple of times a month.  To harvest the garum, first skim off any that rests on the top of the vat.  I did this with a teaspoon with the same technique as which I use to clarify butter or remove excess fat from the top of a stew or curry.

Next, fill a small colander with ferment pick out the large solids like bones and fins etc.  Wipe the outside surface of the colander and place above a receiving vessel.  Cover the colander with a plate to reduce odor and set in a place where it will not be disturbed.  I suggest placing in a garage or cellar, if left out of doors, local animals will easily remove the plate and make a mess of the ferment.

Every day a little more liquamen will drip out of the ferment.  Collect this and set aside.  There is no need to refrigerate – garum is so salty it will keep at room temperature nearly indefinitely.  However, it may be better to harvest and filter only what you need for short-term purposes as the biochemistry of the liquamen may change over time after it is exposed to light (which is why the Romans stored it in opaque amphorae.

Next comes the filtration.  The first filtration I did with commercial grade cheesecloth that was folded over into four layers.  This will remove the crude solids.  Then I switched to a funnel and commercial coffee filter and filtered the mixture four more times, each time after a period of rest to allow the solids to collect on the surface of the garum.

A word about garum being “clear”.  On the internet, the quick recipes for “garum” all mention that the product should be “clear”.  This concern is based on the concept of turbidity and is a caution against growing microorganisms instead of facilitating the enzymatic digestion of fish.  With the quick production method, this may be an issue, but it is not if you go about it over a series of months.  Garum isn’t clear and will never be clear with manual filtration.  Even after four passes with coffee filters, if the garum is allowed to sit, a thin layer of scum forms on the top of it.  If this is disturbed, the whole solution will become cloudy, only to settle out when left to rest for several hours or overnight.  The best that garum will ever be is a beautifully translucent amber.  Greater clarity could be achieved with a centrifuge, but that is out of reach for most people, and certainly never occurred to the Carthaginians, Greeks or Romans.

Where do we go from here?  We keep on harvesting the garum.  First by letting the liquid drip out of the raw ferment and then by performing dilutions with water of the allec that remains from the first harvest.  Then comes the fun part.  We start making the various mixtures that have been handed down to us from the Romans – using sweet and dry wine must, water, honey and olive oil and a variety of different spices.  Then, well then, comes the cooking.  So stay tuned.  There will be much more to learn about garum in coming months.  (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Homemade Garum by Laura Kelley; Other images from Wikimedia).


Additional:  I will be hosting an ancient Roman cookoff during the month of April to explore the many uses of garum.  In this effort, I will be joined by Charles Perry, Ken Albala, Sally Grainger, Napa winemaker David Mahaffey, Roman Restaranteur Paolo Magnanimi and the lovely polymath, Deana Sidney from Lost Past Remembered.

Making Garum – The Traditional Way

I said we were going to do it in the original post on garum. And so we have. Our attempt to make garum the traditional, slow way has officially begun. Fifteen pounds of fresh, whole Norwegian mackerel, and about nine pounds of sea salt have been combined in a clean, sturdy, sealable, 5-gallon painter’s bucket. And now we wait, and let the heat and humidity turn it into a delicious amber liquid to enhance the flavor of the savory dishes we eat.

Prepping it was a lot of fun. I caused a run on Norwegian mackerel at the East Asian Market, with two other customers buying large amounts of the same species after I did. I also caused a bit of confusion in the staff when I told them not to clean the fish for me. They smiled and nodded and asked me three more times how I wanted it processed and I reassured them that I needed the fish whole, head and tail on, lightly rinsed. When I explained that I was going to make fish sauce, the manager stared at me for a moment and politely reminded me of the many varieties of fish and shrimp sauces and pastes they had in aisle seven.

My son helped me prepare the fish, which included only a good wash down and cutting them in two with the biggest knife he had ever held. He thought the fish were beautiful with their blue striped iridescent backs, and was only a little put off if a bit of blood flowed out of the gills during washing. He’s excellent at salting as well, and made sure there was a flat white layer of sea salt in between each layer of fish.

Making Garum – The Traditional Way

It was really quite simple to do and not all that messy, because the fish was very fresh. I consulted a lot of historical sources for recipes and wound up going on instinct influenced by knowledge of modern production of colatura where opaque layers of salt separate the layers of fish.

The painter’s bucket is much more airtight than a wooden barrel or a terra cotta pot, so there is no need to coat the inside surface with anything.  I also chose to produce the garum without herbs – figuring that these can be introduced later after the garum is harvested.

So far, there is absolutely no odor around the bucket, but that may change as the digestive enzymes start to break down the rest of the fish. Then stirring becomes important. We have a lot of wild animals in our area and I am interested to see what they make of this as time – and fermentation – goes on.

One thing I found most interesting was that I used as much salt as I found necessary to completely cover the layers of fish along with a final layer that has got to be about an inch thick.  Now, recipes of garum vary widely and call for a ratio of fish to salt ranging between 5:1 to 1:1.  Generally, I’m a bit salt phobic.  I never use as much salt as prescribed to make preserved lemons for North African and Andalusian cooking, and they always turn out just fine. Likewise, my Subcontinental vegetable and fruit pickles and my Kim Chee (and other Korean pickles) are also low on salt – and they turn out just fine as well. Much more tasty than store bought, without the high sodium and citric acid to burn one’s mouth. When making garum, on the other hand, I used quite a bit.  Its a bit unusual for me, but let’s hope that instinct sees me through on this.

The plan is, first, to compare slow garum with a “fast” method utilizing a yogurt maker or crock pot. Then if we get good product, I’m going to make a whole variety of garums like the Romans would have used – oenogarum – garum mixed with different wines, another preparation mixing garum with must; oxygarum – garum mixed with vinegar and meligarum – garum mixed primarily with honey. I also hope to try several different herbal recipes used to flavor the garum for different foods. So, stay tuned – updates will be posted as add-ons to this post. (Words and photos of garum making by Laura Kelley; garum by Laura Kelley and son.)


The Garum Diaries

June 28/Day 3:  There is a fishy odor when the container is unsealed, but the surface is still salty white.  We are happy that the odor is fishy and not a rotten smell – we take that to be a good sign.  The salt is damp to the touch.  A quick probe down into the bucket shows a lot of liquid about 3-4 inches down.  The fish are intact and show no sign of decay.  The liquid is tan to light brown in color.  Fish and salt are packed in tight and the container resealed for a few more days.

July 1/Day 7: The surface salt is wet and “mushy” in a couple of places. Clearly, the amount of liquid is increasing in the container. No bad smell even when unsealed, it just smells fishy like a fish counter in a market.

July 9/Day 15:  The surface of the salt is a little bit wet across the entire face of the bucket.  A couple of areas have an amber-colored stain on them – probably areas where I pressed the salt down to draw liquid on the last check.  Not stirrable, yet.  No bad smell even when unsealed, it just smells fishy like a fish counter in a market.  A number of toads congregating nearby – I wonder if the odor is drawing them near.

July 17/Day 23:  Clearish liquid up to an inch deep on one half of the container.  Salt is stained light amber almost across the whole surface.  Fish is still quite solid beneath the surface.  I think if I stopped the process now, rinsed and gutted the fish and dried it part way, it would be “salted fish” as in “salted fish with chicken and chive flowers”.  Not stirrable, though liquid is building on the surface.  Odor is mild as in previous posts.  No signs of wild beasties nearby.

July 24/Day 30:  Light amber liquid building up on surface of salt.  Salt is stirrable and beginning to dissolve to 3-4 inches down.  Fish feels harder than before as if the liquid is seeping out of it.  We stirred only the surface and then packed it down hard and resealed the bucket.  Odor is mild as in previous posts and cannot be detected at all until unsealed.  The recent high temperatures (over 100 F) have been helping the process along nicely.

July 30/Day 36:  What a difference a week makes!  The salt was moist and colored tan to amber and covered with a layer of clear and amber liquid a couple of inches deep.  I stirred the bucket from top to bottom and there was a lot of liquid down below that is now distributed more evenly throughout the bucket.  The smell is mild, again like a fish counter in a market.  This is because the fish isn’t rotting, it is digesting itself.  After stirring, the bucket was mostly liquid with fish in it – it is no longer hard packed in salt. We resealed the bucket and will wait another few days to a week.

Garum 8-7-2011

August 7/Day 44: Salt is largely dissolved into a tan to light brown liquid. Fish are soft and parts are dissolving as well. After breaking up residual salt on the bottom, bucket is roughly stirrable with a long broom handle. The odor is still mild. We try to get as much of the fish below the surface of the liquid as we can and reseal for another few days to a week. The plan is to play this out till the end of September and then see if the product is harvestable.

September 17/Day 85:  We’re still at it.  There is simply not a lot of change to report.  When it is still, it is quite liquid, and then after stirring, it is more of a mush as the fish and salt get broken up.  Still no severe smell.  Not sure now if we are going to stop it yet, or let it continue on for a few more months.

Culinary History Mystery #3: Garum and Nuoc Mam

A post about how Garum and Nuoc Mam are related through a west-to-east technology flow.

You heard it here first folks: Over the course of the next six months or so, the kitchens of Chez Kelley are going to make the fish sauce of the ancients or garum. More accurately, we are going to compare easy or quick methods with traditional outdoor fermentation. If we haven’t been run out of the neighborhood, we will report our results in an end of summer post.

Asian and Italian Fish Sauce

I’ve been interested in making my own garum for a while now, and have a few traditional and modern recipes in hand to try. For those of you not familiar with this culinary wonder of the ancient world, it is a magical, translucent amber liquid that results from the fermentation of salted fish. When used with a heavy hand, the sauce understandably lends a fishy flavor to foods. When used with a lighter touch, it imparts a subtle, undeniably savory quality to dishes that is nothing short of absolutely delicious.

Interestingly, modern science has shown that analysis of remnants from ancient garum production from Pompeii has shown a pattern of free amino acids high in free glutamate followed by sweet-tasting glycine and alanine. These amino acid patterns are similar in modern Italian fish sauce (colatura di alici) and in some modern Asian fish sauces.

Importantly, fish sauce doesn’t appear in Asia until well into the period known as the Early Middle Ages in Europe, almost 1,000 years after its documented use in the west. Its use in China and Japan diminishes after about the 14th Century ACE, because of the rise of soy sauces, but in Southeast Asia, fish sauce use remains strong to the present day. Umami is as savory does.

A Garum Production Site Near Cadiz

Like salt-baked fish, garum production started with the Phoenicians in Carthage who controlled the Mediterranean salt trade from Spain and Morocco across Europe and North Africa to the Levant and well into Western Africa. The largest installations in the western Mediterranean was located at Lixus, on the Atlantic coast of Mauretania (Morocco), with another one in New Carthage (Cartegena) in southern Spain. Spanish garum was renowned as being of the highest quality and was traded widely across the ancient world. The Black Sea (Euxine) was another prominent area for the production of garum. Pompeii was the home of a major garum processing industry. Here, the liquid from already fermented fish was diluted and flavored with a wide variety of substances including wine, must, vinegar, honey and multiple herbs and spices.

The earliest mention of garum fish sauce is to be found in the agricultural writings of the Carthaginian Mago which was translated into Latin after the Third Punic War, but composed probably in the 6th or 5th Century BCE around the time of the rule of Magon (550-530 BCE). Cato the Elder mentions the trade of “Carthaginian fish sauce” in the 2nd Century BCE, and later descriptions can be found in The Deipnosophistae (The Philosopher’s Dining Table) by Athenaeus, I. 4b; II. 67f, c (3rd Century ACE). Athenaeus also mentions the remains of garum or liquamen production called allec which is not unlike the anchovy paste still used in Mediterranean cooking today.

Many different fish were used to make garum or liquamen in the ancient Mediterranean world with Tuna used during their seasonal migrations past Spain and Morocco, and mackerel, sardines and especially anchovies used during other times of the year. In fact, the remains of seasonally available fish from garum processing jars at Pompeii was the way that archaeologists confirmed the August date of the eruption of Vesuvius. Anchovies form the backbone of Asian fish sauce production for export, but many other local salt-water and inland fresh-water fish and shellfish are used for local and regional consumption.

Garum Amphorae from the Pompeii Pottery

The production of garum and Asian fish sauce is virtually the same as well. Fresh fish and salt in some proportion (recipes vary widely from 5:1 to 2:1) are layered in barrels, clay pits or earthenware crocks. Because of their large size, tuna were cut up before fermenting to prevent putrefaction, but most fish – especially the small species are processed whole and intact. In Rome, oregano and other herbs were added at the production phase for both flavor and to suppress bacterial overgrowth, but this step is largely omitted in the production of Asian sauces. The vats are then left to ferment – sometimes covered or sometimes uncovered (Carthaginian and Roman) in the heat and stirred every few days to a week to ensure even enzymatic digestion of the fish.

Basically the digestive enzymes of the very fresh fish digest themselves. The period of time the fish are allowed to digest varies widely between ancient west and modern Asian production, but it ranges from about 3 months to almost 1 year. As the fish ferments and decreases in bulk, bricks or a weighted bamboo mat is placed on top of the mass and presses down on the fish. When completed, the vats are siphoned from the bottom, or drainage holes opened in the bottom and the liquid is allowed to drain out. Multiple simple filtrations later, and the translucent amber fluid begins to emerge. In both east and west, the first draft is considered the highest quality sauce. Lastly the fluid is diluted with water to different degrees for culinary use. As stated above, the fish paste that remains after the garum or fish sauce is withdrawn is also used in the kitchen.

Ancient Romans flavored their garum extensively. For example, one recipe for oenogarum is a 1:1 dilution of garum with must from sweet white wine. This basic recipe can be augmented with both vinegar and pepper, or with crushed garlic, vinegar and salt. Other recipes have garum mixed with red wine must, vinegar, mint, coriander and honey. Commonly used herbs to flavor garum included dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano – depending on what the garum was going to be used for. Oxygarum was garum diluted primarily with vinegar and meligarum was garum cut primarily with honey. Modern Italians combine the basic colatura with herbs and other flavors during the cooking process, but generally don’t flavor the fish sauce directly. For example, I cooked a pasta dish last night that had colatura, garlic, lemon zest, capers, chives and parsley in an extra-virgin olive oil base – it was divine.

Making Colatura and Nuoc Mam

Like the Ancient Romans, modern Asians use prepared fish sauce a lot. Vietnamese nuoc mam cham is a great example of this. Recipes for nuoc mam cham (or just nuoc cham) vary a great deal from region to region (and from family to family) but generally have some combination of nuoc mam, lime juice, garlic, chili peppers, rice vinegar and oftentimes sugar. There is also nuoc mam gung in which ginger and peanut or sesame oil is used to flavor the nuoc mam along with lime juice and chilis. The Cambodian tuk trey has similar ingredients to nuoc cham, but adds pounded peanuts to the mix. The Japanese shottsuru mixes fermented fish sauce with malted rice for a darker, deeper fish sauce and in the Philippines; people use calamansi citrus or lemon and pepper to flavor their fish sauce patis.

So, once again, we can identify a product that flowed from west to east and was eagerly adopted by Asians on the Silk Road. The recipes for garum changed and adapted as they moved east and became nuoc mam and nam pla according to cultural preferences and what gifts the Asian seas had to offer. Archaeologists and food scientists are working to confirm these flows and linkages, so stay tuned to this channel to learn more about garum production in the ancient world and in the kitchen of Chez Kelley.

Right now, I’ve got to run, my husband is preparing a rocking Parsi salad with fresh turmeric, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and lime juice that smells incredible! (Words and Photo of Garum Amphorae from the Pompeii Pottery by Laura Kelley; photo of Modern Asian and Italian Fish Suaces from commercial culinary sites; Garum Production Facility near Cadiz, Spain from Wikimedia, and the photos of colatura and nuoc mam production from google images).