A definitive element of Southeast Asian cooking, fish sauce has a long, lustrous (and, it’s fair to say, malodorous) history that goes back millennia. Made from fermented fish, it provides that delicious umami kick to so many dishes and, in the case of Cambodia’s version which is more of a paste than a sauce, it also serves as a vital source of protein. But fish sauce is not unique to Asia, and its use should not therefore be uniquely reserved for Asian cooking.
Fish sauce is so entrenched across Asia’s cuisines that it is impossible to define a point of origin. Further afield, ancient records of Babylonian and medieval Byzantine cooking also identify fish sauce as a key ingredient, albeit one that didn’t go down too well among travellers. Some things never change…
Evidence for the manufacture and use of fish paste and fish sauce for seasoning dishes in Classical Greece and Ancient Rome can be found across the Mediterranean. The Romans used to rely on a fish paste called garum and a liquor called liquamen to season their dishes. Alongside olive oil and wine, garum was in fact one of the staples no Roman kitchen would have done without and was used anywhere salt would normally be called for today.
Garum was manufactured commercially rather than domestically and traces of its use can be found across the Mediterranean from Portugal to Greece. Urns containing kosher garum were found amid the ruins of Pompeii, and there is a Roman garum factory still standing in Lisbon, albeit no longer in use. Garum seemed to slide out of use around the 10th century when other methods of preserving fish started to emerge.
But, all that is not to say that we can’t still use Asian fish sauces even when preparing European dishes if we want to give them an extra kick of those salty, savoury flavours that we call umami. Add some in to boost your bolognese, or while you’re sautéing greens (especially bitter ones like Brussels sprouts — toss halved sprouts in a mix of vegetable oil, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and lime before putting in a 180°C oven to roast for about 25 minutes). In fact, any beefy stew or casserole will benefit from a dose of fish sauce. And not just beef. Smear a little over your chicken before coating it in oil or butter to roast it and lift those magic Sunday flavours.
Naturally, it might take a little while to get the balance of how much to add right, so go light and taste-test every step of the way.