Ah, Summer. The season of having too much time on my hands. And what to do with that time? Well, I took a few shifts as a lifeguard. I did a bit of writing. I even TAed a class. And yet, I still had time to myself. I figured it was time to change that by exploring the cuisine of the past and eating as the ancient Romans did. The Romans, of course, were very famous for a sauce that they used in all their food. Since tomatoes hadn't quite made it to their continent yet, the ancient Romans had to settle for a sauce made with salted, fermented fish guts. This fish sauce was called garum.

Garum was infamous for its pungency and lingering stench. The Romans thought of it as we do of garlic today. Thankfully, the ancients were kind enough to leave us with some instructions for concocting this piscine pantry staple.

"Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid."

-Gargilius Martialis, De medicina et de virtute herbarum

I made the recipe as directed, adding sage, oregano and celery, with some butterfish that were on sale from the store. Hey, if it's banned in several countries, it's gotta be good, right?

Eli Udler

So, what does it taste like? Imagine leaving fish submerged in salt for a week, then pouring out the liquid that accumulates and dumping it on your food until every bite on your plate is a mess of salt and an intense, fishy stench. It tastes exactly like you think it does

beer, tea
Eli Udler

Now, I had to figure out what to do with it.


Great! I now had a sauce. Now, I know we're all college students here and that most of us have probably just drank sauce straight out of a bottle because we were too lazy to find something to put it on (No? Just me?), but if I was going through the trouble of making ancient fish sauce, I was gonna do it right.

ham, meat, pork, bacon, rib, steak, beef
Eli Udler

I tenderized a couple of top round steaks, then briefly marinaded them in some of the fish sauce (just a bit is enough). The meatiness of the garum enchances the meatiness of the steaks, making for bite after bite of ridiculously rich, decadent beef. It also makes it taste a lot like fish, for whatever reason.

steak, pork, meat, beef, sauce
Eli Udler


Apicius, one of the world's oldest culinary texts, details a number of vegetable dishes enjoyed by the Romans. Though vegetables were prepared in various ways, one unique technique was that of boiling them in soda water to help them retain their color as they cooked. Using this method, I made a turnip salad and a celery salad (despite not really being sure if it called for celery stalks or celery roots). These were dressed with olive oil, vinegar, oregano, lovage (do you have any idea how hard it is to find lovage? Because it's very hard to find lovage. Just saying.) and a tiny bit of garum.

Eli Udler
scallion, salad, onion, celery, vegetable
Eli Udler


Pasta is good, I suppose. And I also suppose it was about as good a few thousand years ago. As stated above, the tomato sauce we're accustomed to these days wasn't a thing yet. Instead, reduced wine often formed the base of a sauce. In this case, I just went with olive oil, pepper, Pecorino Romano and a bit of garum. Again, bearable and very, very fishy. I'd certainly go for seconds.

sauerkraut, pasta, cheese, parmesan
Eli Udler


This may have been pushing my culinary limits, but I was going to take fish and flavor it with concentrated fishy flavor. I went for butterfish again, because it's reasonably cheap and incomparably delicious. I only had two. It is, after all, banned in so many places for a good reason. To one, I applied a half teaspoon of garum. Just that, as well as some lime and black pepper, is all this tremendously flavorful fish really needs. There isn't much to say about the result, other than that it tasted a lot like fish, in as intense and poetic a way that something can taste like fish. If we're being honest, the fatty fish, having acquired even more flavor from the olive oil it was fried in, was just fine on its own. Maybe skip the garum here, unless you really like fish.

lemon, lime
Eli Udler


Brisket is expensive and I was cooking this for guests, so I certainly wasn't going to overdo it with the garum. Anyway, I had 2 center cuts with a bit of fat cap left on them, just right for low and slow smoking on a charcoal grill. A great way to add flavor to smoked meat and to prevent a dry product is to apply a mop sauce hourly. My sauce included vinegar, sunflower oil and a bit of garum. In this case, I think the intense flavor of the smoke and spices was enough to hide the fishiness. Perhaps the long cook time reduced that flavor as well. The result was extremely flavorful and not fishy at all. Unfortunately, it was gone before the last of the guests arrived

tenderloin, fillet, sirloin, brisket, pepper, meat, pork, barbecue, beef, steak
Eli Udler


No. Sorry, but no.

I hope I don't give you the wrong idea about garum. There is no complexity to it. There is no metamorphosis of flavor, wherein fish and salt are transformed into something more than the sum of its parts. There is no gentle touch. You are not lightly caressed by the taste of the ocean's depths. You are stung by hundreds of jellyfish, torn apart by sharks. Piranhas sink their razor-like teeth into your extremities. Neptune himself grabs you by the neck and shoves hundreds of pounds of fish down your throat. Let's not mince words: If you're if you are weighed down by a hyper-traditional understanding of cuisine, including the idea that food must taste "good," then skip the garum and grab yourself a bottle of ketchup. But if you really want to approximate the sensation of French kissing the rotting corpse of a beached whale, then maybe, just maybe, this is the condiment for you.