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How do Roman fish sauces compare with sauces today?

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Introduction

How do Roman fish sauces compare with sauces today? "The so-called liquamen is made as follows: the entrails of fish are thrown into a vessel and salted. Take small fish, either atherinae, or small red mullet, or sprats, or anchovy, or any other small fish, and salt all this together and leave to dry in the sun, shaking it frequently. When it has become dry from the heat extract the garum from it as follows: take a long fine-meshed basket and place it in the middle of the vessel with the above mentioned fish, and in this way the so-called liquamen, put through the basket, can be taken up. The residue is allec. The Bithynians make it in the following manner: it is best to take large or small sprats, or, failing them, take anchovies, or horse-mackerel, or mackerel, make mixture of all and put this in a baking-trough. Take two pints of salt to the peck of the fish and mix well to have the fish impregnated with salt. Leave it for one night, then put it in an earthenware vessel which you place in the open sun for 2-3 months, stirring with a stick at intervals, then take it, cover it with a lid and store it away. ...read more.

Middle

Which sauce is best is a matter of opinion, rather than fact, so, in my opinion, the source is still reliable. Liquamen is used in almost all the recipes of Apicius (q.v.), often in lieu of salt, which is recommended as a substitute. Whilst liquamen would have been extremely salty this is probably for hygiene rather than culinary reasons. Salt is added to nam pla and nuoc mam to prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Given the similarity of use between these sauces and liquamen it is reasonable to extrapolate that salt was added for the same reason. Even with the high salinity, certain bacteria would have been able to breed. Lactobacilli, a culture used in yoghurts today, would produce lactic acid, giving a flavour somewhat similar to sauerkraut or dill pickles. Coupled with the fish flavour this provides sufficient evidence, I think, to show that liquamen was a sauce in its own right, not just an interesting or healthier (the fish oil contains a lot of vitamins and minerals, much like cod liver oil today) alternative to salt. As well as the standard fish sauces, garum and allec, the Romans diluted garum, with various liquids, to produce new sauces with different flavours. ...read more.

Conclusion

Apicius' fried veal, a very similar dish, both contain the same basic ingredients, is served with a liquamen-based sauce. Vegetables, seafood, meat, poultry and eggs are all served with some use of soy sauce or liquamen. Their use is almost identical. This evidence, however, may be misleading. Whilst soy sauce, without doubt, is an integral part of Oriental cookery, Apicius' cookbook may be a poor source concerning everyday food. Garum is, certainly, an important aspect of the cooking Apicius was used to but it is important to remember that he was a millionaire, a wealthy Roman who, reputedly, committed suicide upon discovering he had spent all his money on food. Apicius' lifestyle is quite clearly that of the Roman uppermost classes and his cookbook is not representative of the food of the typical Roman. Garum could well have been an expensive condiment; there is evidence that suggests this: "Scarcely any other liquid except unguents has come to be more highly valued, bringing fame even to the nations that make it." - Pliny Natural History Book XXXI Chapter XLIII Apicius' extensive use of it could be misrepresentative of its true niche within Roman cookery, representing a luxury only available to the richest of Roman society as vital to Roman cuisine. ...read more.

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