Fish sauce: a historic flavour enhancer

17-09-2020 in Ingredients
Fish sauce: a historic flavour enhancer

If you've ever made Asian-inspired dishes, you're bound to have come across the Thai fish sauce called Nam Pla or the Vietnamese version called Nuoc Mam. But did you know that fish sauce was also already being used by the Romans? They called their fish sauce garum. Time to take a closer look at this ancient, fragrant flavour enhancer.

Popular in Roman cuisine

Only a few recipes from the time of the Roman Empire have survived and the most famous of these are those by Apicius, the most important ‘foodie’ of his time. The dishes he recorded are characterised by their excessive luxuriousness, with many exotic animals used alongside kilogrammes of herbs and flowers. What stands out is that 80% of these recipes contain garum. This was the most important flavour enhancer during this period, pretty much what salt is to us today. In Asian cuisine, fish sauce still plays a leading role today. 

How was garum made?

Garum is the liquid that remains after pickling and fermenting fish. The Romans used the whole fish, or just the innards or even only the blood of the fish to make the sauce. This was poured into large earthenware jugs or pots with large amounts of salt.

The enzymes from the intestines of the fish become active after contact with salt and fermentation occurs. Fish only ferments when it warms up, and that explains why ancient texts give the reader the tip to put the jars on the roof of their house in the sun for three months. Despite the stench that this undoubtedly caused, garum was produced on a large scale. 

The role in today's cuisine

Fermented fish sauce would continue to play a role predominantly in Asian cuisine. The flavours of this cuisine are largely determined by fermented sauces such as soya sauce in Japan, kechap in Indonesia, Nam Pla in Thailand, and Nuoc Mam in Vietnam. All these sauces contain salt and umami, which is the reason why salt is barely used in these cuisines.

But what does fish sauce actually taste like? Firstly, it adds a salty taste to dishes. But it does much more than just that... It adds umami, or savouriness, to a dish without adding a fishy flavour. At the same time it enhances the iron taste of meat, making it perfect for giving the taste of a stew, chilli con carne, or Bolognese ragù a boost.

Fish sauce vs salt

We've collected three recipes or dishes where fish sauce can make a real difference:

  1. Bolognese ragù
    Adding a little bit of Nam Pla will intensely enhance the flavour of the meat in this Italian classic.
  2. Stock and gravy
    Fish sauce will enhance the taste of meat when preparing stock or gravy without leaving your stock tasting like fish.
  3. Ceviche
    For the preparation of ceviche, raw fish is ‘cooked’ in lime juice. Add up to 50% fish sauce to the lime juice and instantly add the taste of East Asia to this Peruvian dish.

Other flavour enhancers

In addition to the fish sauces already mentioned, Asian cuisine features several more well-known flavour enhancers. Read all about them in this blog. If you have any questions or comments, send us a chat message using the orange button at the bottom right of your screen.

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