Garum is the fish sauce chefs love

You won’t find much – if any – mention of garum, the fermented fish condiment, on menus at San Francisco’s Saison or Angler restaurants. But a few drops of this umami-rich elixir makes diners sing, “Mmm, what is You’ll find garum in dishes ranging from dry-aged amberjack crudo with fish head adobo to aged wagyu with blistered chicory and juice.


“In fact, it’s used pretty much everywhere on our menu,” says Paul Chung, culinary director of the two Saison Hospitality restaurants. “Garum is one of those things where it’s pure umami in the sense that it’s not soy-based. It’s similar except it’s just salt and heat and gasoline pure protein, so it’s a bit cleaner, but with a lot of depth.”


Chefs have quietly rolled out this pungent and favorite condiment that dates back to the Roman Empire for centuries, in fact – relying on the centuries-old process of intensively salting a raw protein source to extract its liquid, minimizing the waste while extracting complex flavors. Garum is similar to Asian fish sauces although less salty. Its closest modern relative might be Worcestershire sauce or colatura di alici, the Italian sauce with aged anchovies. Of course, seeing what a principle of cheffery it is to learn rules just to break them, restaurants today 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 the Greek, traces its origins to the Greeks and Phoenicians, who marketed the fermented fish mixture as early as 500 BC. It was historically made from the entrails of small fatty fish like sardines, mackerel and anchovies, which were layered between salt and aromatic herbs, then left in open vats under the Mediterranean sun until they reach the appropriate power. The process, which could take months, relied on the sun for bacteria in the fish’s guts to break down the fish’s flesh into a viscous liquid – turning its proteins into 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 cooking recipes named for first-century gourmet Marcus Gavius ​​Apicious. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, who was one of the first to define it, 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, NJ, and faculty member at Monell Chemical. Senses Center in Philadelphia. “It was salty, salty, sour, a little fishy; it had a lot of similar principles to modern ketchup. People were constantly shaking it on their food.”


Until the Italian city of Pompeii was sealed in time by volcanic ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, it was considered the pinnacle of civilization in ancient Rome, largely because “it was one of the largest producers of garum,” notes Breslin.


Not everyone was so fond of it; The Roman philosopher Seneca less fondly described it as the “expensive entrails of rotten fish… [burning] the stomach with its salty putrefaction. “Indeed, according to ancient sources, the process of making garum was so stinky that laws were passed to keep production away from urban areas. This may explain why archaeologists have discovered surprisingly few sites where garum was produced despite its wide – varied popularity.


Garum plants have been discovered in the western Mediterranean and North Africa, including Spain, and in 2019 archaeologists found one outside the city of Ashkelon in southern Israel. one of only two ever discovered in Israel. Enjoyed until medieval times, garum probably only disappeared from European and Mediterranean cuisine because the Roman trade routes that brought the sauce inland were disrupted.


Salty extraction elixirs on the Asian continent, on the other hand, have remained embedded 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 caught skinny pogues in the summer and fermented the innards for homemade fish sauce. These days, he and head chef Richard Lee experiment with non-meat ingredients like cold-smoked mushrooms, and they occasionally infuse fish-based garums with spices and herbs like Sichuan pepper, cinnamon, shiso or hyssop with anise towards the end. of the fermentation process.


Restaurant garums are not limited to traditional fish bases either; they are also made from dry-aged beef, duck, tuna, and even antelope.


“But most of the time our garums are designed to be neutral, to bolster the proteins we’re using in a dish,” says Lee. Of course, the process has been considerably modernized since the days of stone vats. Temperature-controlled dehydration stations and hot rooms enable year-round production at Saison and Angler.


As Americans increasingly appreciate umami, garum is once again gaining center stage. At coastal Iberian restaurant Porto in Chicago, homemade anchovy garum ups the ante in vaca vieja beef tartare, which chefs Marcos Campos and Erwin Mallet emulsify with raw oyster and egg yolk before garnishing of salted caviar. At the Catskills restaurant, the DeBruce, garums run the gamut from beef to mushrooms and bee pollen, where they have all but replaced soy as a seasoning.


One of Executive Chef Eric Leveillee’s favorite uses is in the elemental dish of Hudson Valley Beef with Wild Berries. He grills dry-aged beef over charcoal, slices and brushes it with beef garum, and places it on a plate covered with wild-picked berries. “The dish was so simple, but the garum gave it just enough complexity to make it truly excellent,” says Leveillee. “I love the nuance of the garum; the flavors are clearer and more complex and we can follow its progress more closely and stop the process once it has reached what we want it to reach.”


If all this garum talk is pushing you to make your own, theoretically all you need is a bunch of fresh sardines or mackerel, some salt, a clay container, and a sunny spot (ideally with a fairly large radius for the – ahem – pungent aromas). Still, Chung considers it a risky business for those who are not into fermentation. “There are ways to prevent the growth of bad bacteria, like increasing the salt, but you still have to be careful about fats that go rancid,” he says. That’s why he recommends starting with a lean meat product instead of fatty fish, which requires frequent fat filtering to prevent rancidity.


Perhaps your best bet might be to pay close attention the next time you go out to eat – especially when you’re grabbing a bite of steak or fish with umami so complex you can’t help but blurt out “Mmmm, what is this?”


Why, it’s just a few shakes of old fish sauce.

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