Are we talking about fish sauce being an expensive gift? A bit far-fetched, probably you think. Certainly not the case for the Romans! The poet Martial described the garum as "an expensive present". And some types of that sauce were pretty costly. We can understand its high price by the calculations of Pliny the Elder who lived in 1st century AD. He said that 2 congii of garum cost around 1000 sestertii. During the period between 1st century BC and 1st century AD, the Roman legionary salary for a year was approximately 1000 sestertii. For this amount of money, a soldier could buy 2 congii (around 6 l / 211 imperial oz / 203 US oz) of garum. What do you think now?
As the recipe for the original garum was not appropriate for home making (all this fermenting fish in the garden!), we decided to give a try to the “quick recipe” of the 10th century collection "Geoponica", as one more convenient for a modern kitchen. (If you want to learn more about garum, you can check out this post.)
For our first shot, we picked regular sardines, but then suddenly we stumbled to a cold-smoked fish (mackerel) at the supermarket. A quick question arose: would it make any difference if we used a smoked fish? So, we decided to experiment with the two.
Bear in mind that ancient cuisines did not have proper ventilation and all the food was cooked on wood and fire. Giving that, the smoked fish turned out to be a direct hit. The result of our small test was two distinctive types of fish sauce that differed not just in colour, but in taste too.
The regular sardines gave a liquid that was quite translucent and somehow yellowish in colour. On the other side, the smoked mackerel yielded darker, a caramel-like tint that resembled the colour of the amber.
The taste, although similar, was different too. The smoked fish has transferred a soft, delicate flavour to the garum that only the smoke can produce. The “regular” sauce reserved its “fishy” nature.
So, we both unanimously nominated the second fish sauce for our champion!
For producing aproximately 500 ml / 17 fl oz fish sauce
1. 200 g / 7 oz/ small (smoked) fish – mackerel, sardines, or sprat
4. Crush the fish in small parts with wooden spoon
5. Add the oregano and the sapa and stir for 5 min.
6. Remove from the heat and sieve
7. Leave it to cool and pour it into jars
You are ready to go!
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More than 300 recipes in the famous Roman cooking book "De re coquinaria" of Apicius contain garum/liquamen. If you are planning on trying original ancient Roman recipes, then I highly recommend you to produce your own garum. It is easy, fast and the sauce basically does not spoil. You can leave it in the fridge and use it for weeks ahead.
If you do not feel like dealing with fishy things in your kitchen, there is a solution for you. There are plenty of fish sauces in almost every supermarket in the world. You can choose between Vietnamese "Nuoc mam" and its Thailand friend "Nam pla". We found out that "Nuoc mam" is very close to the one that we produced from the “regular” sardines.
If, by any chance, you live in Italy, or have relatives or friends around, you could ask them to get you a sauce called "colatura d’alici". It is produced in the region of Campania and scientists think it is the closest modern version of the ancient garum/liquamen.
Last note: Do not be afraid of replacements in ancient food cooking! Follow your tastes and culinary intuition. Even ancient authors called for substituting ingredients. At the end of the day, the culinary is an art where improvising means to excel.
* Val’s tips:
If you want to be as close as it gets to the original Roman cooking, then you need to prepare sapa beforehand. Look for a recipehere.