Friday, 15 March 2013

Garum/Liquamen (Fish Sauce)

Nothing is so synonymous with Roman cuisine as garum, and nothing is as misunderstood.  It will surely surprise you to learn that garum does not actually appear on its own in Apicius - rather, it is liquamen which we use when we cook Roman food.  Whilst both are sauces made from fermented fish, they are actually rather different in nature.


Garum is a condiment made from the fermented blood and innards of selected fish.  Being a condiment, it was something which was added to food after cooking, much as we might use soy sauce or tomato ketchup - it was the diner who used it, not the cook.

Garum, described by Pliny the Elder as "that exquisite liquor" (Natural History, 31.43), could be very expensive indeed.  Garum sociorum, a prized garum from New Carthage, sold for 1000 sestertii per 2 congii.  A congius was about 3 litres, and 1000 sestertii was a legionary's yearly wage.  Needless to say, not all garum was so expensive, but it could be a luxury item for those with a few sestertii to spare.


Liquamen on the other hand is a sauce made by fermenting the whole fish, rather than just its blood and innards.  This is exactly the same as modern day Asian fish sauces, such as nam pla and nuoc nam.

It saddens me to say, that despite being called Pass the Garum, garum won't actually feature in anything we cook.  It is liquamen, or our own approximation of it, that we will be using.  As the topic is immensely interesting, I have included a select bibliography at the end for those who wish to read more about Roman fish sauces.


Few ingredients make people feign illness or roll their eyes as much as fish sauce - for those of us not living in South East Asia at least.  People expect it to smell horrible and taste worse, and the idea of adding it to any meal is enough to make stomachs turn.  Fish sauce is, however, not very fishy at all.  Rather it is salty, with hints of cheese and meat.  Its purpose in a recipe is not to stand out on its own, but rather to bring the other flavours together in harmony, something which it does exceedingly well.

Finding It

Walk into the Asian food section of any large supermarket and you're sure to find a bottle of fish sauce.  If you live near an Asian supermarket then you'll do even better.  Failing that, it is possible to order online:

For an idea of which brands are best, check out this guide for more information.  Whilst it's ok to use these fish sauces straight out of the bottle, generally they are much saltier than liquamen would have been.  We can easily adjust the fish sauce for our own purposes however.  To do this:

  • Make up some Caroenum.
  • Mix the fish sauce and caroenum in the ratio 1:3, but adjust as necessary.  You want the cheesy elements of the fish sauce, without the overpowering salt.
  • Bottle it up for future use.

So, for example, I mixed 50ml of Blue Dragon fish sauce with 150ml of caroenum and found that it made a perfect mixture.  It's not pleasant, but taste it as you go along to ensure that you achieve the right balance.


Really there is no alternative to liquamen - it is quite unique.  However, having spent the last few hours slurping various sauces in the kitchen, I would say that if you are stuck, your best bet is to use dark soy sauce in its place.  If you can sweeten this a little, then even better.  I've often heard it said that Worcester Sauce is only three ingredients away from garum/liquamen - if this is true, then unfortunately those three ingredients have made Worcester Sauce unsuitable as an alternative - it is too spicy.


  • Curtis, R., 'In Defense of Garum', The Classical Journal 78 (1983), pp. 232-240 (JSTOR Link)
  • Grainger, S., Cooking Apicius, (Totnes, 2006)
  • Grainger, S., 'Towards an Authentic Roman Sauce' in Hosking, R. (ed.) Authenticity in the Kitchen: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005, (Totnes, 2006) pp. 206-210 (Google Books Link)


  1. I find Nuoc Nam quite fishy, actually, so I only use just a little bit in dishes (I'm a supertaster though so that could be part of it). I honestly can't figure out how palates were so adjusted to the stuff so many years back. It is a magic ingredient in so many things, though. Apicius' Parthian chicken is my fave and it would be nothing without the garum. Supposedly the Italians are making this again, in a preparation called Colatura di Alici (throw it in Google translate if you don't speak Italian). I saw that it is available on Amazon now, so I'm definitely going to procure a bottle and try it out!

    1. You'll have to let me know how it tastes! As for Parthian chicken, expect to see it VERY soon indeed.

  2. you can buy Garum in Napoli, Italia ;-)

  3. "garum won't actually feature in anything we cook"

    What? Good day sir! I said good day!

    (just stumbled on to your blog and really enjoying the content)

    1. What a sham eh? I promise that there's more than enough liquamen to go around though :)

  4. There's another site that has a recipe for colatura that's just tomatoes, colatura, pepper flakes, and pasta. It's quite good.

    Oddly, for years I've made a pasta dish I learned from Rachael Ray of all people -- with tomatoes, tuna in oil, and pepper flakes. The flavor is nearly identical despite there not being any tuna meat in the colatura version. I suspect the tuna packed in oil carries a lot of the same flavors as colatura/liquamen.