Why Chefs Have Loved Garum Since Ancient Times

The Roman fermented fish sauce is retaking the spotlight in restaurant kitchens.

Garum is a fermented fish sauce
Photo: Evgeniy Lee / Getty Images

You won't find much — if any — mention of garum, the fermented fish-based condiment, on the menus at the San Francisco restaurants Saison or Angler. But a few dribbles of this umami-rich elixir make diners croon, "Mmm, what is that?". You'll find garum in dishes ranging from dry-aged amberjack crudo with fish head adobo to aged Wagyu with blistered chicory and jus.

"Actually, it is used pretty much everywhere throughout our menu," says Paul Chung, culinary director over both Saison Hospitality restaurants. "Garum is one of those things where it's pure umami in the sense that it isn't based on soy. It's similar, except, it's just salt and heat and the pure essence of the protein, so it's a little bit cleaner, but with a lot of depth."

Chefs have quietly deployed this pungent, favorite condiment that dates back to the Roman Empire for centuries, in fact — relying on the age-old process of heavily salting a raw protein source to extract its liquid, thereby minimizing waste while mining complex flavors. Garum is similar to Asian fish sauces though less salty. Its closest modern-day kin might be Worcestershire sauce or colatura di alici, the Italian aged anchovy sauce. Of course, seeing how a tenet of chefdom is to learn rules just to break them, restaurants nowadays attach the term to all sorts of fermented sauces they develop using ingredients as diverse as smoked mushrooms and bee pollen and sometimes deploying additional cultures like koji.

Garum, whose name derives from Greek, traces its origins to the Greeks and Phoenicians, who traded the fermented fish mixture as early as 500 BC. It was historically made using the guts of small, oily fish like sardines, mackerel and anchovies, which were layered between salt and aromatic herbs then left in open vats beneath the Mediterranean sun until they achieved proper potency. The process, which could take months, relied on the sun to make bacteria in the fish guts break down the fish's flesh into a viscous liquid — transforming its protein into the umami-rich amino acids glutamic acid and glutamate.

Garum was immensely popular throughout the Roman Empire. References to the condiment abound in "Apicius," a collection of Roman cookery recipes named for first-century gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicious. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, who was one of the first to define it, famously called it an "exquisite liquid."

"There was probably a bottle of garum on every table in every household in the Roman Empire," says Paul Breslin, professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and faculty member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "It was salty, savory, sour, a little fishy; it had a lot of principles similar to modern-day ketchup. People were shaking it on their food constantly."

Until the Italian city of Pompeii was sealed in time by volcanic ash during the eruption of Vesuvius, it was considered the height of civilization in ancient Rome — largely because "it was one of the single largest producers of garum," Breslin notes.

Not everyone was so fond of it; Roman philosopher Seneca less affectionately described it as the "overpriced guts of rotten fish … [burning] up the stomach with its salted putrefaction." Indeed, per ancient sources, the garum-making process was so stinky, laws were passed to keep production away from urban areas. This may explain why archaeologists have unearthed surprisingly few garum production sites despite its wide-ranging popularity.

Garum factories have been discovered in Western Mediterranean and North Africa, most notably in Spain, and in 2019, archaeologists found one outside the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon — one of only two ever unearthed in Israel. Beloved as late as the medieval period, garum probably only disappeared from European and Mediterranean cooking because the Roman trade routes that brought the sauce to inland areas were disrupted.

Salted extraction elixirs on the Asian continent, meanwhile, have remained rooted in people's cultural heritage since ancient times, as Chung points out. He started making garum with his family as a kid in Virginia, when they'd catch lean pogues in summertime and ferment the innards for homemade fish sauce. Nowadays, he and chef de cuisine Richard Lee experiment with non-meat ingredients like cold-smoked mushrooms, and they'll occasionally infuse fish-based garums with aromatic spices and herbs like Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon, shiso or anise-hyssop near the end of the fermentation process.

The restaurants' garums aren't limited to traditional fish bases, either; they're also made from dry-aged beef, duck, tuna, even antelope.

"But mostly our garums are made to be neutral, to reinforce whatever protein we're using in a dish," Lee says. Of course, the process has modernized considerably since the stone vat days. Temperature-controlled dehydration stations and hot rooms allow for year-round production at Saison and Angler.

As Americans' appreciation for umami grows, garum is once again finding the limelight. At coastal Iberian restaurant Porto in Chicago, housemade anchovy garum ups the funk ante in the vaca vieja beef tartare, which chefs Marcos Campos and Erwin Mallet emulsify with raw oyster and egg yolk before garnishing with briny caviar. At Catskills restaurant the DeBruce, garums run the gamut from beef to mushrooms and bee pollen, where they've all but replaced soy as a seasoning.

One of executive chef Eric Leveillee's favorite uses is in the elemental Hudson Valley Beef with Wild Berries dish. He grills dry-aged beef over charcoal, slices and brushes it with beef garum, and places it on a plate covered in foraged wild berries. "The dish was so simple but the garum gave it just enough complexity to make it truly great," Leveillee says. "I love the nuance of garum; the flavors are more clear, and more complex and we can monitor its progress more closely and halt the process once it has achieved what we want it to achieve."

If all this talk of garum has you angling to make your own, theoretically all you'd need is a pile of fresh sardine or mackerel guts, salt, a clay container and a sunny spot (ideally with a sizeable radius for the — ahem — pungent aromas). Still, Chung deems it risky business for those not adept at fermentation. "There are ways to prevent the wrong bacteria from growing, like bumping up the salt, but you'd still need to watch out for fat going rancid," he says. That's why he recommends instead starting with a lean meat product rather than an oily fish, which requires frequent fat straining to stave off rancidity.

Perhaps your best bet might be paying close attention the next time you're out to eat — specifically the moment you take a bite of steak or fish with such complex umami you can't help but blurt out, "Mmmm, what is that?"

Why, it's just a few shakes of ancient fish sauce.

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