Garum, a furiously funky sauce made from anchovies and other tiny fish fermented with salt, has been called both "the ketchup of the ancient world" and "the great-grandfather …
Garum, a furiously funky sauce made from anchovies and other tiny fish fermented with salt, has been called both "the ketchup of the ancient world" and "the great-grandfather of Worcestershire sauce." Mass-produced in factories by the Romans, it was sprinkled on every savory food by every person of every class in the Mediterranean region. Residue of the sauce found in vessels in Pompeii helped archeologists date the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius to 79 AD.
Colatura di Alici, the more modern, somewhat less funky, version of the sauce, is still made in Campania in southern Italy. Sold in tiny glass bottles, it's prized for the flavor just a few drops can add to meat, fish or pasta dishes -- most commonly a chile oil, garlic and parsley dressing for thin spaghetti.
Thai (nam pla) and Vietnamese (nuoc mam) fish sauces are closely related to both ancient garum and contemporary colatura. They are made the same way, by fermenting anchovies with sea salt anywhere from a few months to a few years, to produce a high-protein, fishy, salty umami bomb rich in naturally occurring MSG.
While you can find garum and colatura only online (or in Italy), Asian fish sauces can be found in both specialty and everyday supermarkets. Some brands are stronger and funkier than others. In general, the lighter the color of the sauce, the less funky it is. Red Boat, a higher grade and a little pricier than some, delivers all the flavor with less of the funk.
You will not taste the fish in a fish sauce if you use a light hand. Cooking mellows the straight-from-the-bottle funk, so you will only be aware of a deeper, richer flavor in your favorite recipes.
To get the most out of that bottle of fish sauce, look beyond the usual Asian stir-fries and dips. Try adding a little fish sauce to every marinade, gravy, soup, stew, tomato-based pasta sauce and pot of chile you make. Experiment with steak, pork, lamb and chicken; sautéed greens; green beans, Brussels sprouts and zucchini; and curries. It can stand in for Worcestershire sauce in a Bloody Mary and raise tuna salad and garlicky mayonnaise to a new level, a secret ingredient that only you know about.
A little fish sauce goes a long way, so use a light touch when you first start cooking with it. A few drops of colatura di alici or a few shakes from a bottle of Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce will do the job. You can always add more, a little at a time, until you reach the balance of funk and flavor that works best for you. Because these sauces add a good dose of salt to a dish, you also may want to cut back on the salt called for in your original recipe.
A word of warning: Do not pour fish sauce directly into a hot, dry pan: the smell will be potent enough to drive you out of the kitchen.
Vegetarians take heart: Cook's Illustrated published a recipe for a homemade vegetarian "fish sauce" substitute in March 2013. Simmer 3 cups of water, ¼-ounce dried sliced shiitake mushrooms, 3 tablespoons salt and 2 tablespoons soy sauce until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain and cool before using. Keeps in refrigerator for up to three weeks. (Both soy sauce and mushrooms are umami-rich.)
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