If there’s one food item in Roman culture that’s a defining item, its fish sauce. Specifically garum fish sauce.
From legionnaires fighting on all the frontiers of the empire, to blacksmiths and stonemasons building aqueducts and ironwork in large cities, to even the humble farmer trying to make ends meet, fish sauce was prized all across Roman culture.
Garum is a sauce fermented from the viscera of rotting fish and used as a condiment from rich to poor. If you are so bold as to try REAL garum, by all means do so. We’ve provided our own substitute.
Poured over fish, meat, and vegetables, this sauce goes back to as early as 600 B.C. (so 2600 years ago) from the eastern Mediterranean. It spread both into Roman lands as well as northern Europe and could find factories of production across Spain and Egypt.
Whether you were in a market, a garrison, or a town, you could get access to the good stuff. In fact, it’s interesting to see the comparison to hot sauce and its varieties today with garum in the ancient world. The grades and quality varied just the same, with the most pure treated as great of in value as high quality perfumes.
Not only food but fish carried through to many aspects of daily life in the classical world. Food and medicine smelled and tasted of fish because of garum. Large fish were so desirable that the poet, Marcus Valerius Martialis or Martial 38 and 41 CE — 102 and 104 CE), describes a case by a wealthy man named Calliodorus and his excess.
This man sold a slave for 4,000 sesterces (Roman currency) and bought a 1.8 kg/4 pound fish. This fish was a Surmullets, a brightly colored member of the mullet fish . Even to this day, they are highly prized fish. In fact, the writer, Brian Fagan, author of Fish on a Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World, writes that Calliodorus’ fish probably converts to $2,200 U.S. dollars (written in 2006).
Below is an example of a fish stew that takes inspiration from Rome and the importance of fish in daily life in the classical world:
1.5 lbs of fish fillet in bite sized pieces such as halibut or salmon
525 ml beef broth
3 finely chopped leeks, with the green stuff, that are washed well before chopping. Use two leeks if they are quite large
100 ml of olive oil
55 ml of fish sauce
1 handful of finely chopped fresh coriander or cilantro
1 handful finely chopped celery hearts and leaves
Dried or fresh oregano to taste
Pepper and salt to taste
- Combine all liquid and bring to a slow simmer
- Add fish and simmer for 10 minutes or until you’ve reached the doneness that you prefer
- Remove fish and add vegetables to the broth and leave until they are all cooked. You can add the broth over the fist over some rice noodles or drink as a stew.
- These stews are very modular so add and take as you’d like.
Enjoy a hearty, and yes, fishy, Roman stew, and realize that there was a time when steaks, wings, and chicken breast WEREN’T meats that people thought first of when delicious food came to mind.