Garum Fish Sauce - How the Romans Got Their MSG

The Famous Roman Empire Fish Sauce, Garum

Tunisia - archeology - Archaeological museum of Nabeul
Factory of salt meat of fish and manufacture of the garum, the archeological site of Nabeul, Tunisia. Nicolas Fauqué / Getty Images

Garum was an important fish sauce and condiment of the Roman Empire, one of several fish sauces manufactured and widely traded across the Mediterranean region and beyond (others include muria, allex, lymphatum and liquamen). Garum is a salty, slightly fish-flavored condiment, and ancient Roman writers report that garum was used for a whole range of dishes, rather like soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce today.

Garum's key ingredient was glutamic acid--a.k.a. MSG; and that makes it an "umami" sauce, one of several basic sauce types found throughout the ancient and modern world.

Making Garum

Garum was traditionally made one of two ways: dry-salting and wet-brining. The dry-salting method involved placing small whole fish or the intestines of larger fish into a vat. Herbs, spices and salt were added to the vat, which was then covered and left for three months to ferment. Alternatively, garum makers began with a strong salt solution (or brine) into which they placed whole fish or fish intestines. The brine was heated over a fire until the liquid had reduced to an acceptable level.

In the first century AD at the Roman resort town of Pompeii, a residence was converted to a garum manufacturing shop, with the central courtyard or peristyle used to make and store fish processing. Analysis of garum remains found in processing jars at the Garum Shop revealed a number of free amino acids, the dominant one being mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), and a result comparable to modern Italian and Asian fish sauces.

Manufacturing Sites

Roman garum manufacturing sites have been identified throughout the Roman empire. In Pompeii, garum manufacturer Aulus Umbricius Scaurus decorated an atrium of his house with a mosaic of four garum containers. A second private residence in Regio 1 of Pompeii is known as the Garum Shop, because after the earthquake of 62 AD, it was converted to garum production.

The Garum Shop was composed of several rooms organizated a central courtyard used as a processing area. Six large ceramic jars (called dolia) in the courtyard still contained fish bones bones. Something tells me the neighbors might have complained.

Other garum production areas have been identified archaeologically in many Roman period sites including Aila (modern Aqaba) in Jordan; at Leptiminus (Lamta) and Neapolis (Nabeul) in Tunisia (seen in the photo above); Correeiros, Tróia and Setúbal in Portugal; Baelo in Spain; Cotto in Morocco; as well as many, many other locations.

Garum Origins

Various theories about the origins of garum suggest that the earliest form of the sauce was made by Phoenicians or Punic colonists from Asia Minor, perhaps as long ago as the 8th century BC. One possible source may have been Greeks from the Black Sea region; but from whatever source the stuff came from, it quickly became the go-to condiment to conserve fish and complement poor, cereal-based diets.

Garum was a part of a vast trade network throughout the Mediterranean, along with a wide range of goods and produce, and like olive oil, wine, madder, and honey, garum was traded in large amphorae, jars made for the safe export of liquids.

Evidence for the presence of Eastern Mediterranean amphorae before and after the fall of the Roman empire throughout Europe attest to garum's mighty attractions.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Ancient Foods, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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