Fish Sauce: A Fishtory
From ancient Greece to modern-day Southeast Asia, we trace the history of fish sauce across the globe.
You might not be that familiar with fish sauce - but you’ll know it when you smell it. We don’t use a lot of it the West, but visit Southeast Asia and you’ll be hard pressed to avoid the pungent, fishy odour that wafts from nearby street food stands and kitchens. You can find the ingredient in countless dishes; from the Vietnamese dipping sauce, nước chấm, to mohinga, a rice noodle soup considered the national dish of Myanmar. An umami-rich condiment made from the fermentation of fish with sea salt, it’s a staple ingredient in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, Thai, Burmese and Filipino cooking.
Yet if you look into the history of fish sauce, it becomes clear that it’s lineage may not be Asian afterall. In fact, it’s possible it was born in Europe.
Little is known about the first fish sauce, though it’s thought to have been produced along the Black Sea coastline by the ancient Greeks, or perhaps by the Carthaginians along the coast of the Lake of Tunis, in modern-day Tunisia. The Greek communities called it garos, and it was mentioned by ancient writers, including Aristophanes, Sophocles and Aeschylus.
It was the Romans, however, who had an obsession with garum, their version of fish sauce. Garum, also know as liquamen, muria or allec (see DeFINitions below for a breakdown), was made by mixing fish blood, guts and heads with copious amounts of sea salt. The mixture was then left to ferment under the sun for two to three months. Delicious.
According to Pliny, garum could be made with a variety of fish or shellfish, including maena, murena, tunny, mullet, oysters, and sea urchins, although mackerel was the most popular.
‘Exquisite liquid’ or ‘poisonous fish’?
Garum was a culinary solution to the problem of preserving fish, which, once dead, are highly susceptible to decomposition and putrefaction, especially in the hot climes of the Mediterranean. The use of salt or salt brine helped remove water from the tissue of the fish and prevented the growth of mould. But this process also enabled the tissues to ferment, transforming the flavour into something seemingly irresistible to Roman palates.
While garum wasn’t as big an industry as olive oil, it was still widespread and an important part of early history of Italian food. In fact, entire factories were dedicated to its production. Excavations have found numerous remains of fish-salting sites along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts in Spain, Portugal, France, North Africa and the Black Sea, with each port producing a different kind of fish sauce. By the time of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, garum sociorum, a fish sauce made in Cartagena and Cadiz, Spain, was considered the best and could be retailed at a thousand sesterces for twelve pints - the equivalent of 2000 loaves of bread.
Every level of Roman society was obsessed with fish sauce, and they applied it liberally to all kinds of dishes, from lettuce salads to sausages. It was so popular that they even made special varieties for religious ceremonies. According to Galen, the Roman physician, for those suffering from diarrhoea, a bowl of lentils and garum made ‘a very pleasant and useful medicine’. Apicius, the renowned epicure, records nearly 350 recipes that use fish sauce, while Pliny the Elder hailed it an ‘exquisite liquid’.
But like most foods, not everybody was a fan. Seneca, the philosopher and statesman, branded it ‘poisonous fish’ that ‘burns up the stomach with its putrefaction’. And at times the stench from factories could be so pungent that local governors had to temporarily halt production - though this didn’t stop it spreading across the Roman empire and beyond.
Arriving in Asia
Garum may have found its way to Asia via the Silk Road, giving a whole new continent a taste for the fishy stuff. (Though some argue that Asian communities invented fish sauces independently.)
But with the fall of the empire, around the beginning of the fifth-century, fish sauce supplies to Asia were cut off. In Europe, heavy taxes on salt and an increase in pirates in the Mediterranean meant it almost entirely disappeared across the West. Small pockets of production survived, including colatura di alici, a fish sauce still produced in rural Southwest Italy, but the heyday of European fish sauce had definitively ended.
With their supplies of garum cut off, it’s been suggested communities across Asia began making their own versions. Fish sauce provided protein and nutrients to people at all levels of society and was an invaluable food source for the poor, just as it had been for the Romans.
But from the 14th century onwards countries such as China, Japan and Korea began a new umami love affair with soy sauce, leaving Southeast Asia as the last bastion of fish sauce.
It’s difficult to trace the history of fish sauce in Southeast Asia but its prominence in the cuisine today highlights its importance throughout the region. Varieties differ between countries and even regions, but popular fermented fish sauces include the Cambodian tuk trey, Filipino patis, Laotian nam pa, Malaysian budu, Myanmarese ngan-pye-ye, Thai nam pla, and Vietnamese nuoc mam.
It’s so popular and used so widely that in Vietnam, 95% of households use fish sauce daily; that’s about 200 million litres of fermented little fish. It’s a little less in Thailand, at around 75% of households, while in Myanmar it remains one of the top foods consumed.
And with more of us travelling to Southeast Asia than ever before and a growing appetite for its cuisine on our side of the Silk Road, might we see fish sauce rise in the West once again? For my nostrils sake, I hope not, but only time will smell.
There were many kinds of fish sauces used by the Romans, but here's a breakdown of their faves:
The term often used to encompass all Roman fish sauces, it comes from the Greek, garos, which was the name of the fish originally used to make the sauce (except that no such fish ever existed). Garum began as an elite food and could be prohibitively expensive, meaning it was used more as a condiment than a sauce.
Literally meaning 'liquid mixture', liquamen began as the poor man's garum and as a way to extend salt supplies. A dealer of fish sauce was called liquaminarius, while the industry was called liquaminarium. The main difference between garum and liquamen was the type of fish used, mainly sardines, herring, shad and eel.
This was the brine filtered out after fermentation and was usually made from tuna.
More like fish paste, this was made from leftover sediment.
A sauce for wealthier citizens, haimation was made from the blood and guts of mackerel. Yum.