11/01/2008

Something Fishy?

This stuff will grow on you too.
What is fish sauce all about anyway? I became vaguely interested in it, when I heard that remnants had been found in old amphorae retrieved from Roman shipwrecks and at Pompeii. Apparently, people have been using it from ancient times to give food that special something, that je ne sais quoi. I didn't know what and you may not either. Probably it all started with a glut of fish in the village. The ancient Greeks and Romans called their version garum from the Greek word garos or garon. And no, anchovy paste is not an equivalent as it is not fermented. Given my fascination with things fermented, (cacao, fruit wines, vinegar, sourdough) this might be considered a natural. However, judging from what I've read about the process, I don't think I'll do my family the favor of fermenting fish guts around here.

However, for those of you brave enough, who might want to experiment, I am including a recipe for the old Roman stuff.
Ancient Garum Recipe
 Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.
- Gargilius Martialis, De medicina et de virtute herbarum, reprinted from A Taste of Ancient Rome by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, Anna Herklotz (Translator). Publisher: University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (May 2, 1994) ISBN: 0226290328 

In more recent times a Japanese scientist discovered actual chemical rationale for the flavor improving properties of various fermented fish sauces, now mostly popular in Asian and South East Asian cuisines. It is a substance called glutamate, an amino acid found in all fermented products, which has a taste enhancing effect. Is this a natural form of monosodium glutamate? See, they aren't all crazy after all. It has been labeled Umami, one of the five recognized tastes.

Regarding that bottle at the top? I've had it for, dare I say, years - in avoidance mode, sort of like the plague, if you'll notice the level? Not to mention the label, which is now about gone and completely unreadable, so who knows what country might lay claim. But, hey, it's fermented. Can it really go bad? Some of you, no doubt, will say it was already. Ha ha. I finally tried a bit last year when making a Thai raw papaya salad, without which the recipe just doesn't make the grade - won't taste like what you would get in a Thai restaurant. By the way, this salad is what you do with a too green to ripen papaya, fallen from the tree, and yet big enough to make something.

The idea of fish sauce must be slowly growing on me. (Does anyone think I should get a new bottle of the stuff?) I'm ready to try it in a few more recipes. And, most recently have used some in Pad Thai, and in a Malay fish and vegetables stir-fry.

It turns out that the common Worchestershire Sauce is our pale Western version, containing among other things, anchovies. But, garum, in the form of nuoc mam (Vietnam - and one of my sources claims this is the one with more flavor?), nam pla (Thailand), nam pa (Laos), shottsuru (Japan), yeesui (China) or bagoong/patis (Philippines) could be just what your kitchen is lacking. Maybe a taste-testing is in order? Or not. Finally, click here, for more information than anyone really needs on the subject.

3 comments:

Sunny said...

I vote you get a "fresh" bottle of fishy sauce.

Claudia Riley said...

I came very close to using it again last night. I made a risotto with quinoa (so probably should be called quinotto?) and shrimps. Instead, I'll experiment with the leftovers for lunch. That way it won't be a total waste if ... ah, well you can tell I'm not totally sold on the stuff yet, which, by the way, isn't fresh to begin with.

Shu Han said...

I love fish sauce! In southeast asian cooking, that, along with fermented shrimp paste (sth new for you to check out;) and fermented soy bean paste (different from soy sauce) forms the yummy basis of all our food! Hmmm, it might be a good idea to get a new bottle and then see whether you really hate it after all!