Savor the Flavors of Antiquity

'Tis the Season for Noms!

Reproductions of amphorae that once held garum. Carole Raddato/British Museum/Flickr

The ancient Romans were famous for their version of ketchup, a sauce called garumMade of fish guts fermented in brine (yummy, right?), this tasty topping was made and shipped across the Roman world. But everyone else in antiquity also loved a heaping of deliciousness on top of their foods and, of course, given the international nature of trade and travel, who knows who invented which sauce? Let's take a look at the saucy stories from ancient cuisine.

All That Rome-ains is Taste!

Garum usually consisted of "the guts of fish and the other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse; these are soaked in salt, so that garum is really liquor from the putrefaction of these matters," according to Pliny the Elder. Charming! But the sauce came in more than one form and flavor. In fact, amphorae found at Pompeii were labeled garum catsumor "pure garum."

Scholars have speculated that this refers to kosher garum made specifically for Jews, who were prohibited from eating products from creatures with scales. This is another piece of possible evidence for Jews at Pompeii. Or perhaps this version of garum was for those with dietary restrictions who practiced mystery Eastern religions. 

But what about people who weren't garum fans? Folks living on the Mediterranean, whether from Italy or Egypt, also loved sweet and sour sauces. For example, they served sliced veal in a sauce with raisins, pepper, honey, onions, herbs, and wine vinegar.


The Romans loved many sauces, and the famous Apicius cookbook details some of their yummy condiments. They enjoyed ius album, or ​ius candidum (literally "white sauce"). It doesn't contain milk, but instead has quite a few different variations, often containing vinegar and wine; chefs would soak bread in it and place it under the meat.

If you were a fowl fan, enjoy ius viride in avibus, a green sauce for birds, underneath your delicious dish; Apicius just specifies that the sauce contains "all kinds of green herbs."

It's All Deliciously Greek to Me

The Greeks had an early version of garum called garos, but they loved more than salty sauces. Archestratus recommended a hyssop-and-vinegar sauce for fish-heads, while, for those who favored other options, there was katachysmata, sauces which combined condiments like oil and cheese with a liquid that was then poured over meat; there was also a sweeter katachysmata with dates, figs, dried fruits, and coins that was poured over newlyweds' heads for good luck.

And then there's kandalous, which hailed from Lydia in Asia Minor. This unusual sauce contained Phrygian cheese, boiled meat, breadcrumbs, meat stock, and dill or anise. Sounds like a meal to me!

Down to the Delicious Details

How do you cookkippu bird? Sear the fowl, add cold water and vinegar, then rub salt and mint into the flesh; next, strain the liquid from the bird and put even more mint in to make it super-tasty! But guess what? The Mesopotamians used a fermented fish sauce, too!

Head east to experience one of modern society's favorite condiments, which the ancients loved, too.

The Chinese invented a version of soy sauce called jiang - made from fermented soybeans, brine, and a fermentation starter called ​liang qu - about 2500 years ago. Soy sauce and miso then developed out of jiang, giving the world the salty sauce we all love so much.