Fish Sauce (Roman) // Most people are familiar with fish sauce, the essential pungent flavoring in Southeast Asian cuisine, but its history travels a lot further from Asia than originally thought. In ancient Roman cities, citizens used it as a salt substitute and as parts of dips and sauces, often combining it with wine, vinegar, oil and honey.
Like Asian fish sauces, the Roman version was made by layering fish and salt until it ferments. There are versions made with whole fish, and some with just the blood and guts. Some food historians argue that “garum" referred to one version, and "liquamen" another, while others maintain different terms were popular in different times and places.
The current convention is to use garum as a common term for all ancient fish sauces. Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino studies the early roots of garum, the Roman version of fish sauce. He cites mention of garum in Roman literature from the 3rd and 4th century B.C., and remains of factories producing garum even earlier. The fish bones remaining at a garum factory in Pompeii even led to a more precise dating of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
So why did fish sauce disappeared from the West? Well, maybe it never did:
"When the Roman Empire collapsed, they put taxes on the salt. And because of these taxes, it became difficult to produce garum.” And the collapse of the Roman Empire created another problem: pirates. “The pirates started destroying the cities and the industries nearby the coast. You could be killed any moment by the pirates, without the protection of the Romans,” Giardino says. And so, Italian fish sauce pretty much disappeared.
But it remained in a few little pockets — like in Southwest Italy, where they produce colatura di alici, a modern descendant of the ancient fish sauce. The product was barely known even in Italy just a few years ago, but it is gradually being rediscovered.
Fish Sauce: An Ancient Condiment Rises Again - NPR, Deena Prichep
So next time you make spaghetti sauce, add a dash of fish sauce. You’ll be amazed!