Hey dudes, dudettes, and non-dude-nary persons, this is Kitchen Catastrophe Quick Tips with your host, the Dude of Deuces, Jon O’Guin. Today, we’re going to dive in-depth into a topic we breezed through on Monday, because it seemed like something cool to talk about. So we’re going to discuss fish sauces AROUND THE WORLD, AND THROUGH THE ANNALS OF HISTORY!!!!
So, yeah. Let’s do this.
A First step in Fishiness
Let’s start with the easy stuff: What’s a fish sauce? If you missed Monday’s post (or chose not to read it because you hate Brussels Sprouts), Fish sauce is not, as you may guess, a sauce to serve on or with fish, but rather one derived from fish. The variety I tend to use comes from a simple process of alternating layers of anchovies and salt, in a box or barrel, and bottling the liquid that eventually results. It’s a very prominent ingredient in Southeast Asia cuisines, including Thai and Vietnamese.
There are 14 different countries on this map. If asked to label them, I could get...8? In my defense, Australia's BARELY on the map.
However, Fish sauces, as implied in the first paragraph, are nothing new, nor restricted solely to Southeast Asia. In fact, the earliest records we have of fish sauce come from Greece, between the 3rd and 4th century BC. For context, that’s right around the time of Alexander The Great kickin’ ass all over the known world. It’s also right around the time of one of my favorite figures in Greek Philosophy, Diogenes the Cynic, whose philosophy of questioning the value of the many inventions of his time and generally being a huge dick about things really helped refine the course of Plato and many others. It is said on one day Alexander met Diogenes sunbathing ,and asked him if there was any favor he could do the philosopher, who responded “Yes, move out of my sunlight.” This has no bearing on fish sauce, I just really like Diogenes, and refused to miss a chance to talk about him.
Anywho, so the Ancient Greeks ate it, and that means ,Spoilers, the Romans did to. We’ll talk about their versions in a second, but first I want to give you, the reader, a bit of context. There’s going to be a lot of fairly weird descriptions for your average western coming up. Mashed organs and open-air rot, sort of stuff. So I thought it would be best to start with the closest thing you may recognize.
What’s the Worcestershire that could Happen?
Ah, yes, Worcestershire sauce. Pronounced, if you were unaware, as ‘Wuss-tur-shur” (There is some debate/wiggle room on the last syllable, with “sher” and “-shire” both being spoken in some places), it is perhaps the most famous savory sauce of England. The name thing, by the way, has no real agreed-upon reason for not pronouncing the middle syllable. We know it’s been pronounced this way since at least Shakespeare, and that a similar thing happens to several other towns, such as Gloucester and Leicester. The best theory is basically “The C sound was a little different, so people were saying ‘Wur-ses-tuh-shur’, and eventually we just smashed the middle syllable into a single S sound. Wurs-tuh-shur.”
The sauce was originally made in the 1830’s by Lea and Perrins, a pair of apothecaries. The circumstances are…convoluted: as best anyone can make out, some nobleman asked for a sauce made from a recipe they’d somehow gotten from a friend in India. Lea and Perrins, unable to find some of the ingredients, made something close to it, from vinegar, anchovies, molasses, and some aromatics and spices, tried it, hated it, and through it in the basement, presumably never to speak of it again.
"Lea, should we tell them about the automatic clothing cleanser we made as well?"
"No, Perrins, the world is not ready for such freshness."
A few years later, they were moving stuff in the basement, and went “Oh hey, it’s that barrel of garbage we made. Well, being two men who work together in a situation with a disgusting food, let’s do what all of history tells us we must: dare each other to eat it.” They discovered, much to the chagrin of whoever posed the dare, that it was actually ‘quite palatable’, and thus history was made.
But that’s the core spine of all these sauces: ingredients, including fish, allowed to ferment, until something great comes out. Worcestershire is the go-to for any recipe that wants meatiness, salt, and umami, without drying things out, for over a century now. Its bold taste stands up surprisingly well to some of the kitchen’s heavy hitters, as I discovered a few years back. I found a recipe for a sandwich of whole-wheat toast, with sliced white onion and cheddar cheese, dipped in the sauce. And surprisingly, while that sandwich is definitely not something you’d want to eat before a make-out, it IS quite good, in a sharp, bracing way.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Fuck shit Up.
Now that you’ve got some modern day context, let’s immediately jump to the least relatable version of fish sauce, because tonal whiplash is the rollercoaster that can’t kill children! Jesus, that got dark outta nowhere.
Yes, you could say it threw us for a...loop?
I'll show myself out.
Now, I recently got my hands on Apicius’s “De Re Coquinaria”, a book about cooking and dining in Ancient Rome, from Ancient Rome. And things…get a little weird here. See, it can be hard sometimes to fully translate specific cooking terms without the proper context. Like, the word “brine” in modern usage is a verb as well as a noun, and a dill pickle brine is different than a meat brine, which is different from say, olive brine. So there are three specific words that show up a lot in Apicius that all connect to our fish sauce discussion: Liquamen, muria, and garum. The consensus is that Garum is definitely a fish sauce. Liquamen and muria might just mean “stock” and “brine” respectively, OR it may be that Liquamen is closer to modern fish sauce, garum was more of a sort of “fish guts barbecue sauce”, and muria may be a fish brine.
It’s difficult to know, but here’s something that’s not hard to know: just how crazy they were for it. A valuable container of garum was recorded as selling for 1000 sestertii for 2 congii. Since I don’t expect you to know roman measurements off hand: That’s a roughly $50,000-75,000 for a gallon and a half. That’s more expensive per gallon than PCP.
Learning it actually comes in liquid form changes this comedy sketch a little.
Now, Apicius himself doesn’t give a recipe. He just assumes you have it on hand. Like, All the damn time. Seriously, the word appears 69 times in the text of his cookbook, roughly half as often as he uses the word ‘chicken’, and twice as often as he says ‘beef’. This crap was everywhere. It was a later chef who explained how to make garum, and he listed 5 ways:
1. Cover small fish with salt, and leave in the sun, turning from time to time. When fermented, scoop into a fine-meshed sieve sitting in a vase. The liquid that drips into the vase is garum.
2. Mix 9 parts fish with 1 part salt, put in a clay pot in the sun for several months. Stir occasionally.
3. Mix a half-liter of fish with a liter of old wine.
4. Mix brine and fish in a pot with oregano. Bring to a boil, until the fish are paste, crushing as needed. Let cool and strain until clear.
5. The fifth way agrees with other sources: to make the best garum, you don’t use the whole fish, just the organs. Some say use only the livers, others say all the organs, one says use all the innards of a tuna, including blood and gills. Treat these organs using either method 1 or 2.
This love of fish sauce was a quintessential part of the Roman diet. Like Ketchup to an American, or Soy sauce to the Japanese, garum was the Roman condiment. And now, today, we have fish sauce. Sauces, technically, as each country makes it their own way. Nam pla in Thailand doesn’t taste quite like Vietnam’s nuoc mam, Japan’s Ishiru, Korea’s eojang, or China’s koechiap. Wait a second…
Yeah, turns out “Ketchup” is named, eventually, for Fish sauce. Technically, how it went is Malaysians took the sauce and called it “kecap”, and THAT’S the name English copied. And then England added onions and mushrooms, and THEN…You know what? We’ll cover that another day. For now, just keep in mind: just because an ingredient may seem a little…fishy, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a shot.
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NEXT TIME: JON, SICKENED AT HOW FRESH HIS COOKING HAS BEEN, GOES FOR SOMETHING REALLY JANKY. SLOPPY JOE POCKETS. LET’S GET MESSY!