When most people think of fish sauce, they think of Asian food. That’s where you’ll usually find it–in a bottle labeled with English and Asian characters.
But fish sauce has as long a history in Europe as it does in Asia, with records showing it discussed by Pliny the Elder in first century Rome, and before that by Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Aeschylus in ancient Greece.
European fish sauce went by the name garum, and it is making a comeback in Western cooking. Like Asian fish sauce, Garum is made by layering salt and fish until it ferments. It can be made with whole fish or with entrails (sometimes called liquamen).
Historians say that garum became a staple in ancient Roman kitchens, with chefs mixing it with other flavors— honey, wine, vinegar, herbs, and oil. Some have called it the ketchup of Rome. However, its use began to decline with the collapse of the Roman empire around the 5th century. Salt became increasingly expensive, and garum was priced out of production.
Pockets of garum production have survived, though, and the sauce is beginning to make a comeback as garum and under the name of colatura di alici (anchovy sauce). Today’s product is a transparent, amber-colored liquid, produced by fermenting anchovies in brine.
Garum is a glutamate, and the flavor of garum/colatura di alici has been called umami, a word that has a history of its own. For centuries, it was believed that humans could differentiate four tastes–sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Chefs and scientists “discovered” a fifth taste in the 1800’s that was named “umami” by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in the early 20th century.
Umami means “yummy” in Japanese–not the most precise definition of a flavor but one that has been embraced by the culinary world ever since. In case you were wondering, in 1985, the term umami was recognized as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides at the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii. Who knew?
Umami flavor has been attributed to fish sauce, of course, as well as to Australian staple Marmite and the flavor is also found in broths, soups, mushrooms and cured meats. Ripe cheese is full of glutamate, as are tomatoes. Parmesan, with 1200mg per 100 grams, is the substance with more free glutamate in it than any other natural foodstuff on the planet, which is why it is used to make so many dishes taste better.
Umami is a mix of sweet and sour that humans have found irresistible for centuries. Umami was industrialized in the form of monosodium glutamate–the notorious chemical MSG.
Not to be compared with MSG, today’s artisan garum is made with pure ingredients that will enhance the flavors of many dishes. The traditional method of making garum/colatura di alici takes about 13 months. Anchovies in salt are left in wooden vats to decompose under pressure. The subsequent concentrated fish oil is then filtered away to be bottled. It’s a slow, natural process. Some sauces labeled colatura di alici are mass produced and sold at large retailers. These usually add water to increase the volume and lower the cost of the end product, making it cheaper but not as umami.
We will soon be offering Flor de Garum, and we currently sell Colatura. To place your order, call (415) 641-8400.