Fermented Fish for Sauce and Fertilizer

Add an umami kick to your kitchen and a soil-benefiting boost to your garden with homemade fish sauce

| October/November 2020

Mackerel is a common fish used to make garum, or fish sauce. Photo by Adobe Stock/Pixel-Shot

Fish sauce is a concentrated mystery. From its smell to its stability, range of flavors, origin, and history, the simple concoction of fish and pure salt packs an alluring and unparalleled flavor. And while the thought of fish being enzymatically digested on your hot roof may not feel immediately arresting, upon closer examination, the liquid condiment that’s a staple in Asian cuisine is supremely easy to make, and surprisingly versatile in the home, no matter what flavor profiles dominate your kitchen. A look at the history of fish sauce, the science behind its characteristics, and the modernization of its production also provides a lens into the evolution of fermentation in the hands of people all over the world. 

A Fishy History

The earliest evidence of fish sauces, or garums, dates back to the ancient Greeks in the 3rd century B.C. The Carthaginians were also early producers of the sauce, and some of the oldest evidence of production can be found in old garum factories carved from limestone in modern-day Tunisia.

Speculation exists regarding whether the practice traveled from the Mediterranean to the many other regions where garums are currently found, or if people across the world spontaneously developed a similar method of preserving fish without the help of trade. When the Roman Empire took over and sprawled across the Mediterranean, much of Europe, and the Middle East, culinary traditions spread with it. However, this doesn’t explain the origins of Scandinavian fish sauces, or garums found in Indonesia. One thing about the sauce’s ancient history is certain, though: Wherever fish were abundant, garums were the primary means of preserving and deriving maximum flavor and nutrition from fishery resources.

Beyond its common association with Asian cuisine, fish sauce can be used in myriad food styles to give dishes a powerful umami flavor. From top to bottom: photos by Adobe Stock/phonlamaiphoto; Adobe Stock/myviewpoint

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