Garum, Glorious Garum: Fish Sauce in Rome

The Romans loved their condiments. Some of the most popular were made of salted fish innards! Here you can discover more about the four varieties of this foul sauce and create your own at home.

The ruins of a garum factory in the former Roman settlement of Baelo Claudia in Spain.

One of the most universal ingredients in Roman recipes happens to be, in my opinion, one of the most revolting. Fish sauce, today a common ingredient and condiment in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, was a building block of the Roman palate.

Now, you have to remember, the Romans loved their condiments. Many cooks believed that food was essentially a blank canvas and it was their job to paint on it with spices, herbs, and sauces. Cooks included fish sauce in savory dishes as a flavoring for meats, vegetables, and porridge. Sweet dishes and sauces also included it as a more aromatic alternative to salt.

You might ask, “What’s this notorious sauce called, then?” That’s where it gets a bit complicated. The Romans, in different sources and at different times, recorded at least four sauces consisting of fish and salt, though each was considered distinct. The most common is called garum, a name believed to refer to the Greek name of a certain species of fish that was probably used to make the sauce.

Closely related to garum was liquamen, though the difference between those sauces is unclear. The two names are often used interchangeably in modern contexts, but Romans seemed to differentiate between them (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum IV). Possibly, garum consisted of fish blood and guts, while liquamen was made with whole fermented fish.

Although garum is the most well-known, liquamen was used far more in cooking — the cookbook Apicius almost exclusively makes use of liquamen in its recipes. Garum was used by Roman diners at their own discretion — once food was prepared and set on the table, it would be applied to flavor food. In this respect, this fish sauce was sort of like ancient ketchup, or more appropriately, soy sauce — the latter, like garum, is rich in glutamates.

Ancient diners prized garum for its versatility as a condiment. Because of this, good garum was very expensive. In fact, Pliny the Elder said two congii (about 1½ gallons) of an especially renowned mackerel variety from Carthago Nova in Spain, called garum sociorum, cost 1000 sestertii, equivalent to a legionary’s annual salary.

Other varieties certainly existed, as did other types of fish sauces. The residue left after making garum was used by the lower classes as a less expensive alternative called allec. Garum could also be evaporated to make a thick, concentrated paste called muria, which was presumably used for seasoning, as well.

In my research, I came across a recipe from a later author by the name of Gargilius Martialis in his work De medicina et de virtute herbarum (On medicine and the goodness of plants). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a recipe in Latin, but here is a translated version of how to make liquamen:

Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container.

Then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.

Though there are a handful of recreated recipes out there that actually call for whole fish or fish innards, I don’t think that’s within reason for the average chef (including myself). The slurry of anchovy guts and herbs that’d have to sit in the fridge for up to three weeks would definitely become putrid. Sadly, it looks like we’ll have to cut corners to make fish sauce, though I really do want to try the authentic recipe from Martialis.

For those who want to keep the work (and funky odors) in their kitchen to a minimum, though, I’ve concocted a recipe that I think will do the job as a substitute for liquamen:

2 tbsp of anchovy paste

4 cups of grape juice

½ tsp of fresh (or dried) oregano, minced

½ tsp of salt

Pour the grape juice into a saucepan or small pot and bring to a low boil. Once the juice has been reduced to about ¼ of its original volume, to around 1 cup (essentially making sapa), slowly add the anchovy paste and stir well. Add the oregano and salt and mix. Take the pan off the heat and let it sit for about 5 minutes to cool. Strain off the oregano leaves. Bottle the mixture and refrigerate for use in later recipes.

Pictures of the ingredients and the finished sauce in a bottle.

I’ve read that Asian fish sauces closely approximate how garum or liquamen would have tasted, but I find them to be too cheesy. I tried to make an earlier recipe for liquamen with a Thai sauce called nam pla, but the fish flavor was too strong and stifling. After all, the Romans used fish sauce primarily to salt their food, not to completely mask it with a disagreeable fishy taste.

With this recipe, I hope to accurately resemble the original marine flavor of garum and liquamen while making the recipe accessible to modern chefs looking to recreate Roman cuisine in their own kitchens. Of course without the fish blood!

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