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Food + Cooking

Eat Like a Roman, Part 2


Maybe you’ve never heard of garum before. It’s certainly not as common as ketchup or soy sauce, but it once had a similar function. As we learned recently in the ruins of Pompeii — where fast-food stands called thermopolia sold dates, olives, cheese, bread, lentil soups, and meat stews — the Romans dumped garum on nearly everything. They made the fermented fish sauce by soaking anchovies (heads, tails, guts, and all) in concentrated sea water. The creature deployed was Engralis encrasicholis, a Mediterranean species, known in modern Italy as alice or acciuga.

Until recently, I could only fantasize about the pungent flavor of garum. Then one day, as I wandered disconsolately in my local Italian supermarket, New York City’s Buon Italia, I stumbled on a display of thin bottles that seemed to be stoppered with brown paper. The label read simply “Garum,” and specified that the product was an extract of alici. The ingredients list read, somewhat redundantly: salt, anchovies, salt.

I uncorked the bottle and took a whiff. It was like being swatted across the nose with a dead crab. I licked a drop off my finger, and the taste was silky and salty, but with a funky aftertaste that sent me running for a glass of club soda. I immediately resolved to bring some home and put it on everything I ate. I would eat like a Roman for at least one day.

The next day, I arose and put a couple of drops in my morning coffee. Now, my homemade coffee is never that good, but the garum made it taste worse, as if it had been made with tap water from one of those Caribbean islands where the drinking water is imperfectly desalinated. I then made a batch of oatmeal for breakfast, putting a few drops of garum in the cooking water. The result was more interesting, though I’ve never been fond of eating fish for breakfast, as they do in England, the Netherlands, and parts of China.

Lunch found me eating sliders, and here the garum added depth to the flavor, with the fishiness eclipsed by Russian dressing, onions, and the intense beefiness of the burgers. In fact, the garum functioned like a sort of organic MSG, but without the ensuing twitching and headaches that some people experience when they eat foods containing the chemical. I managed to not eat again until dinner, at which point I put a few drops in the pasta cooking water, as had been suggested on the label of the bottle. It worked its subtle magic on the pasta, as it had on the sliders.

That evening, I smuggled some into the movie theater, where I went to see Juno with some friends. When the giant box of popcorn was passed, I put a few drops onto the snowy kernels, which were already so salty that nobody noticed. What they did notice, however, was when the bottle started leaking in my pants pocket. “You need to go take a bath, dude,” one of my friends observed as I slunk out of the theater.