When I set off for South East Asia, the ancient Romans were the last thing on my mind, but every once in a while, thousands of miles from the Mediterranean, I would see something which taught me a little bit more about their world. I saw 'ruler cult' in Vietnam as people lined for hours to see their 'Uncle Ho', witnessed religious rituals in Laos and Northern Thailand which wouldn't have been out of place in ancient Rome, and even got to stand side by side with the elephants as Hannibal once did.
More relevant to Pass the Garum, I also learned a lot about food and cooking. Asians, like the Romans, are a lot less sheltered than most of us when it comes to preparing and eating food. If you want to buy ingredients you visit the market, and very quickly get used to the sights and sounds of chickens being killed and cows having no heads - and heaven forbid if you don't use every last little bit of the animal! Continuing on, stalls were stacked high with countless herbs and spices, and people peddled fruit and vegetables which I never knew existed! This raises an important question - if we can't even cook an authentic Thai green curry because we don't have the correct ingredients, how can we ever hope to recreate Roman recipes?
One ingredient which we can be a bit more certain about is that Roman staple, liquamen, made now in much the same manner as it was all those centuries ago. I was lucky enough (depending on who you talk to that is) to visit a Vietnamese fish sauce factory. Fish were caught in the village, fermented in large vats for around a year, and the liquid was drawn off. Tasty. Here are several pictures of the fish-sauce-making-process:
Perhaps the biggest insight I gained into Asian food was how social it was - SE Asians typically take to the streets in the evening to hunt out their favourite foods, with tables and chairs filling every bit of available space. Meals, with all of their added revelry, can last long into the night, with conversation flowing just as fast as the food. Ancient Rome was much the same in many respects; the vast majority of people simply did not have the space or facilities to cook elaborate meals, so they headed out in search of food - we can only imagine what the atmosphere might have been like!
With all this added insight and experience, we're now ready to get back to good old Roman cooking - well, almost. I'm in the process of moving house, and will have to reacquire a few important ingredients first, but once I do we'll have some great recipes ready to get us started again. Keep your eyes peeled!