Fish: Garum and Beyond

Roman Mosaic of Man Fishing, Tripoli Museum (Photo credit: Michael Jefferies)
Roman Mosaic of Man Fishing, Tripoli Museum (Photo credit: Michael Jefferies)

O le bi oju eja ti ehin ko le iwe. (Yoruba) : It is as hard as the eye of a (smoked) fish, which the teeth cannot break. [N.B. — Applicable to any difficult matter.]
(from Wit and Wisdom from West Africa, Richard Francis Burton)

Most people who live to eat (definition: the food-obsessed) might recall talk of garum, a noisome fishy sauce used by the Romans to season their food. Likely the Romans “borrowed” the idea from the Greeks. In England, this concoction eventually became (or so say some experts) Worcestershire sauce.

As Martial says below, it seems that oily fish produced the best sauce, and their blood and guts helped speed the process along.

Ancient Garum Recipe


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, reprinted from A Taste of Ancient Rome

Yet there’s more; an interesting point must be made about this fermented fish sauce.  In much of Africa today, fermented fish abound, just not in the form of pastes and sauces. For example, lanhouin,  produced from “cassava fish” (Pseudotolithus sp.) in the Gulf of Benin. Fermented fish condiments spice up a lot of dishes in Africa, not at all unlike garum, Thai fish sauce, and anchovies in Italian cooking.

For more reading on garum, see Sally Grainger’s comments. Also, an interesting book by William Radcliffe, published in 1921, Fishing from the Earliest Times, provides some amazing material, as does Apicius Redivivus, by William Kitchiner (1817).

For more on fish in Africa, see De la pirogue au plat : le poisson fumé sur la Petite Côte sénégalaise = From the dugout to the dish: smoked fish on the Petite Côte in Senegal, by Ndoye F., Moity Maizi P., Broutin C.. 2002. Montpellier : CIRAD, 89 p. (Série ALISA).

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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