Monday, April 20, 2009

Garum Experiment #1

Garum time! Fermented fish guts... Yum!

Patrick Faas calls garum (also known as liquamen) a "highly salted fish sauce, comparable with and related to soy sauce, made from fermented fish. Rotten fish smells disgusting and in ancient Rome, garum factories stank." Well, duh. Faas continues, "That ancient Romans used garum in nearly every dish gave later historians the impressions that Roman cuisine must have been disgusting... In the Far East the ancient sauce is still popular: in Thailand it is called nam pla, in Cambodia tuk trey and in Vietnam nuos nam" (Faas 143). This I found encouraging. Perhaps my Asian taste buds are well-suited to dishes flavored with garum.

Garum was important and widespread in the ancient world, since "tanks for the processing of garum have been found particularly on the northern coast of the Black Sea, in Spain and Morocco, and in Pompeii. Preservation not only extended the life of the food. It also extended the range of its distribution, and modified tastes, so that added flavour was brought to pork meat, and fish juices after fermentation no longer tasted fishy" (Wilkins and Hill 143).

Wilkins and Hill explain that garum "was made in much the same way as Nam Pla, by fermenting small fish, and it's interesting to note that the results are quite delicate, not the stinker that the idea of rotting fish conjures up at all" (3). My confidence increased.
I would be making the Honeyed Mushrooms of Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger's chapter "The Wealth of Empire" in their Classical Cookbook, which in addition to fish sauce, called for pepper, lovage (or celery leaf, which I used as a substitute), olive oil, honey and of course, mushrooms (113).

Specimen A was Tiparos, a bottle of Thai fish sauce that I had picked up at my local Korean grocer because it contained the shortest and simplest (and thus I hoped, most ancient) list of ingredients: water, anchovy extract, salt and sugar. Opening the bottle, the sauce smelled musty and definitely fishy, not exactly "delicate."
I chopped up an entire box of white button mushrooms and tossed them into a pan simmering with the liquid ingredients. The frying Tiparos mushrooms quickly filled up the apartment with the stench of rotten fish. It was foul, and I'm not just being dramatic. Eventually, the odor dissipated (somewhat) and it was time to taste. At first bite, I thought everything would be okay, it tasted just like a mushroom dipped in a bit of honey. But the aftertaste conjured up memories of my childhood in Hong Kong, smelling the stinky tofu vendor in Wan Chai from three blocks away, angry with my mother for dragging me to it (apparently it smells like hell but tastes like heaven), and having to sit around with tissues crammed into my nostrils while she consumed that horror of horrendous stink. The smell of stinky tofu is regularly compared to year-old sweatsocks and rotten sewage, and in 2000, a stinky tofu vendor in Mongkok was actually fined on account of air pollution, yes it's really that bad... and the stench was creeping its way from my tongue to my nostrils. A whole gutter of a Chinese wet market was unleashed in my mouth by one damned mushroom and oh god, the taste lingered.

My boyfriend (who has the digestive system of a trash compactor and lacks the childhood trauma inflicted by stinky tofu since he grew up in boring places) tried the Tiparos mushrooms and he actually ate several, mystified but not entirely turned off by the aftertaste.

After the Tiparos mushroom disaster, I was understandably very apprehensive about trying Honeyed Mushrooms made with the Italian Delfino brand garum (it was actually labeled "garum"!) that I found at Buon Italia in the Chelsea Food Market. Its ingredient list included extract of salt anchovies (whatever that meant) and salt.
The Delfino garum was far more viscous than the Tiparos and opening the bottle, I found the smell quite pungent and intensely salty. I was scared. Amy sniffed the Delfino and declared it "turkey-like." It did have something turkey-ish about it, but it wasn't good.

I was only willing to sacrifice three mushrooms to this enterprise. Using baby bellas this time, I combined the liquid ingredients, then added the dry ones and stir-fried everything for about four minutes.

Somehow the Delfino mushrooms were absolutely magical, with no trace of fish, rot, rotten fish, sewage, turkey or whatever. They didn't stink at all! They were the kind of savory that coats your palate and leaves your mouth watering for more. The aftertaste was of honey and crisp celery. If ancient garum was anything like Delfino garum then Wilkins and Hill are in no way full of crap and Dalby and Grainger are not trying to poison me. I want to go Roman and put the stuff on everything, too -- my pasta, my waffles, my musubi, my hair.

Dalby, A. and Grainger, S. The Classical Cookbook. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996
Faas, P. Around the Roman Table. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994
Wilkins, J.M. and Hill, S. Food in the Ancient World. Blackwell, 2006

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