Photograph by Alexander Scheible/Alamy (https://foodism.co.uk/features/long-reads/travel/bangkoks-fiery-food-scene/)
Beyond Pad Thai and Stir Fry
By Dale Blankenship
What is the first condiment used by ancient man to make spoiled and bland offerings taste better? In use a millennia before Worcestershire sauce and ketchup, it’s the granddaddy of famous umami condiments. In ancient times it was called garos in Greek, garum in early Latin texts and liquamen in 4th century and later Latin. You could call it the greatest culinary treasure of all time as it turned humble fishing villages into global trading partners. In today’s English-speaking world, it’s called fish sauce.
Fermented fish sauce was used as a condiment in the cuisines of the ancient cultures of Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Carthage and later Byzantium. The first recorded use of fish sauce dates back to the 3rd century B.C. This sauce made by fermenting salted fish was a mainstay of the upper classes and the common man – from banqueting tables to street food stands across the Roman empire. Fish sauce was traded and valued as much as wine, perfume, salt or precious metals. Merchants trekking across the Eurasian continent on the Silk Road brought fish sauce from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Rim cultures. In 2015, a sunken trade ship from antiquity was found off the coast of Italy with thousands of amphora that once held fish sauce.
Image: Boris Horvat/AFP (https://www.vesselfinder.com/news/4946-Sunken-ancient-Roman-vessel-laden-with-3000-jars-of-fish-sauce-found-off-Italy)
The dining offerings in ancient times were basic. Without cold storage, spoiling meat needed extra flavor enhancers to cover a not-so-fresh-tasting dish. Texts from antiquity describe combining garum with olive oil and herbs to create a dressing for vegetables to amp up an otherwise bland offering. It was also used in medicine as a valued nutritional source – most likely due to the high content of amino acids, some B vitamins, iron and Omega-3 oils. Fish sauce was so popular in ancient times that there were three tiers of quality:
- Garum sociorum – highly prized and at the same level as perfume; a sauce served at the table,
- Garum scombri – used in cooking,
- Garum castimonarium – Kosher.
From: Garum and Liquamen, What’s in a Name? by Sally Grainger (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11457-018-9211-5/tables/1)
Fast forward to today and fish sauce is still used extensively in old world regions. Fish sauce by itself is pretty offensive and could be effectively used as a tool to control an unruly crowd. When added in small amounts to certain dishes, fish sauce can create a savory effect that can’t be duplicated with anything else.
What’s the magic behind this stinky substance? It’s the amino acid L-glutamate known as umami. Kikunae Ikeda (池田 菊苗, Ikeda Kikunae, 8 October 1864 – 3 May 1936) was a Japanese chemist and professor of chemistry who, in 1908, uncovered the chemical basis of a taste he named umami. It is one of the five basic tastes along with sweet, bitter, sour and salty.
My history with fish sauce goes back to my early teen years living in the Philippines. My father’s US Air Force salary allowed our family to afford a local cook who introduced us to the regional flavors. Fish sauce has been an ethereal layer of flavor in my recipes for decades. Adding layers of flavor to a dish is similar on the palate like a great bottle of wine or listening to a beautiful complex piece of classical music.
Many of the recipes that we create for Umami.Life have a sprinkling of the magic potion of umami known as fish sauce. Today you can find a wide variety of fish sauce selections at local Asian markets as well as regional and national grocers. Once you add fish sauce to a favorite dish, you’ll never cook it any other way. Top selling quality brands widely available across the United States are Red Boat, Thai Kitchen and Squid Sauce.