- 9 parts fish entrails
- 1 part salt
- Mix raw fish innards and salt in a large pot.
- Cover pot and leave in direct sunlight for several months.
- Strain liquid that forms at the top and bottle for serving.
- Use generously on most foods.
The History Shapes Cookbook
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From the History Shapes Cookbook, available now:
If you're hankering for a bit of zing and maybe a touch of gastrointestinal distress, reach for the condiment at least one prominent historian blames for the spread of parasites throughout the ancient world: garum.
The Phoenicians and Greeks loved it. Over in Carthage it made a big splash. But this fermented fish sauce really had its heyday in the ancient Roman empire.
All classes and stripes of Roman society gobbled down garum. They put it on the top of their food as a salt substitute, or used it in cooking to give a rich umami flavor to their dishes. Poorer classes even used the leftover fish goop (called hallec, allec, or allex) from garum’s production as a way to flavor their breakfast porridges. Ponder that over your next bowl of oatmeal.
As a mealtime staple, garum was big business for the Romans. There were varying levels of quality and the really good stuff fetched top dollar. Factories sprouted up all over the empire to produce it. Every city and port had its own unique spin and flavor, depending on the species of fish and other additives locally available.
These producers were generally outside the city walls because of what one can only imagine was an unbearable funk. It was such a big export in Pompeii that historians were actually able to confirm the date of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius by some old garum they scraped out of a jar in the ruins of the city.
But it wasn't all rainbows and tapeworms in the world of garum. The condiment had its share of haters, and the Greeks led the charge. Comic poet Plato Comicus had a line about “putrid garum” in his humorous bits and Greek diviner of wisdom Artimedorus dropped the mic with “garum is nothing but putrefication.”
Romans also got in on the action. Stoic philosopher Seneca thought garum was for pretentious idiots, calling it “that expensive mass of bloody decayed fish.” Satirist Martial ripped on a guy named Flaccus for trying to hook up with someone who'd just had six helpings of the stuff. You’ve gotta hand it to Flaccus. That must've been one smokin' hot babe for him to endure that level of stank.
If you'd like to let your taste buds experience the majesty that is garum, there are a few chefs trying to bring it back, but it's still mostly under the radar. You can sample a more modern version in places like Southeast Asia and Spain, where they cook with fish sauces in similar ways to the ancients.
Technically, so does the United States: both Ketchup and Worcestershire sauce are based on the old school classic garum.
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