What is Garum?  And how to use it for cooking

What is Garum? And how to use it for cooking

Extremely tasty and often 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 maintain its influence in the culinary world, although its method of cooking may have changed: Unlike the Romans, today’s garum producers do not typically use large amounts of fish and salt and seawater to prepare it, much smaller stone tanks. While the term “garum” has been used (often incorrectly) to define fish sauce obtained from fermentation without salt, real garum is as relevant as ever, loved by chefs around the world for its robust, umami-rich flavors: With only 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 “an exquisite spirit consisting of the entrails of the fish and the other parts that would otherwise be considered waste.” Today, fermentation guru Sandor Katz describes it as “a classic Roman name for fermented fish sauce,” one that “resembles very modern Southeast Asian fish sauces, only typically with less salt, resulting in an even more funky taste.” Colatura di Alici, a light amber liquid made from fermented, salted anchovies still produced on the Amalfi Coast, is considered a direct heir of garum, whose popularity and mass production declined markedly with the fall of the Roman Empire.

How is garum made?

A popular spice in ancient Rome – it has been called the ketchup of the Roman world – garum was originally made with small fish such as sardines and mackerel, along with brine and plenty of time. As people started 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 cooking method – and how it affected more contemporary – it’s worth mentioning that old 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 that use such diverse ingredients as oysters, vegetables and even egg whites.

The source of the confusion can in itself be traced back to ancient Rome. Along with garum, which originated in Greek and Phoenician cooking, the Romans made liquamen, a different fish sauce. Liquamen “served both as a general salt spice in cooking and as an ingredient [in] composite dressings that were served as a dip and also poured over cooked meat, fish and prepared dishes, ”explains food historian Sally Grainger in The story of Garum, a book that many experts consider the bible of the subject. According to Grainger, an ancient Roman food authority whose work involved analyzing and experimentally recreating the fish sauces of Roman cuisine, the use of garum as a cooking ingredient was relatively limited.

Three small fish sit on a white plate in front of a tall vase of dark liquid.  Illustration.

Sophia Pappas

Making garum was a foul-smelling task attributed to Roman slaves and workers. They cleaned small fish and then threw everything – entrails, bones and everything – into stone tanks or large clay pots called amphorae and covered them with brine made by combining different amounts of salt and sea water. The subsequent fermentation process, which could take almost a year, depended on the sun causing bacteria from the fish’s intestines to break down its flesh and turn it into a thick liquid. The Latin word “garum” specifically referred to a fermented sauce of blood and entrails, Grainger explains in his book, “instead of a general term” for fermented fish sauce.

It is the process of chemical decomposition that allows garum to develop its complex taste. As the fish’s intestinal bacteria spread through its body, they set in motion the fermentation process, which in turn converts the fish proteins into amino acids such as glutamic acid and glutamate, giving the flavor its robust umami taste.

How was garum used in the kitchen?

“It is very difficult to determine exactly how it was used,” Grainger writes. “There are hints that garum was a table sauce that was poured on food, its black shiny appearance will have made it particularly visible to elite consumers.”

Throughout Roman times, garum was sold at different qualities and prices, depending on the fish used and the concentration of the liquid – the thinner the better and more expensive. Weaker versions of the sauce went to more modest kitchens and the Roman army. It was used as a flavoring for pork, fish and even wine, and also combined with ingredients like pepper, vinegar and oil to create new compound spices. And because it was made from fish, it was also considered a source of protein. In time, garum became so essential to the ancient Roman palate that a network of trade routes was established from various places, such as the Iberian Peninsula, the Mediterranean, and North Africa, where large production sites were built to supply the Romans’ urge for liters and liters of the foul-smelling relish.

How do modern chefs recreate garum?

Sandor Katz explains that many contemporary chefs use the name garum to describe sauces made from fermented seafood, animals, insects or even vegetables with salt and koji, the Japanese name for grains grafted with the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. “These can be wonderfully delicious, but are a departure from the traditional garum,” Katz points out.

At the fermentation laboratory at René Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant Noma, koji is one of the ingredients used to create different versions of garum. They are brewed in a warm solution of koji rice. “When we first started exploring the traditional processes, we realized that there was an opportunity for us to use other ingredients to also produce powerful flavors,” explains Jason White, the restaurant’s director of fermentation.

Since at least 2014, Noma’s fermentation team has created garum of ingredients as diverse as beef, chicken wings, various vegetables, smoked mushrooms and egg whites. “We were incredibly fascinated,” says White, “by how replacing meat with vegetables could give us different and interesting sauces.”

Along with its ability to break down proteins into free amino acids (which create umami flavor), koji also helped create sauces that were powerful yet delicious. “We found out by not using guts and blood [like the Romans did], we were able to focus more on the meat, which gave us cleaner taste, so we naturally started using koji instead of the natural enzymes found in the meat, ”says White. Another benefit of koji is that it gives less salty garums, “Taste-wise,” he adds, “you get more out of the ingredients and not just salt, which also makes garum an incredibly versatile product.”

Many other restaurants make garum from a combination of protein, water, salt and koji. “Koji is the biggest variable, not only if it’s rice, barley or another grain, but the way we grow it or pull it out. [fermentation] process, ”explains Trey Smith, co-chef and co-owner of New Orleans restaurant Saint-Germain. “The process changed from batch to batch as we made adjustments, tasted the difference and recorded inputs and outputs along the way”.

So what are chefs looking for in a garum?

Smith searches for umami-rich sauces that reflect the taste of what he spices in the restaurant. “For example, we want to season fried lamb with a lamb garum, or we poach lobster in a lobster garum butter to enhance the natural flavor,” he explains. “Lamb flavor should taste almost like a fried lamb extract. Fish sauce and soy sauce can add umami to a dish, but sometimes it changes the overall flavor profile in a way you do not want. Seasoning a steak with beef garum just makes it taste even more like beef. “The beef garum, Smith adds, is made with” koji, which we have grown a little slower than the one we use for other garums. It results in a sauce that is nutty, bitter, sweet and tastes “roasted.”

What are some of the other ways chefs use garum?

The use of garum is as extensive as its taste: restaurants have used it in soups, sauces, meats and even cocktails. Pere Planagumà, the chef at Les Cols in Girona, Spain, transforms Cantabrian anchovies into his own garum brand, called Escata, which he recommends using with rice, pasta, cheese, potato chips and various desserts.

Dessert is also the destination for the garum that Josh Niland, the chef at the Sydney restaurant Saint Peter, makes from heads, bones and leftovers of small fish such as sardines and mackerel; he uses it to taste the caramel he puts in pies and other sweet dishes.

Elsewhere, chefs use garum to finish a variety of dishes and as a base for sauces and spices that bring out the flavor of both grilled meats and raw vegetables.

If you are not a chef, then where can you buy garum and how can you use it?

Thanks to specialty stores and Amazon, it is possible to buy garum from all over the world. For example, Zingerman’s sells a garum colatura anchovy sauce imported from Italy. From Andalusia, Spain – an important former place for garum production – Matiz’s Flor de Garum is a premium sauce made using only anchovies, salt and spices (from oregano to black pepper). You can also find Pere Planagumàs Escata garum, which is made with Cantabrian anchovies, online. And Noma Projects’ garums with smoked mushrooms and egg whites are to be released online sometime this winter. Once you’ve got your fingers in some garum, start experimenting with it. While it’s good to start slow and use only a few drops at a time, just remember: The world is your fermented anchovies.

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal. Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.

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