Welcome to the first post in our new blog, The Garum Factory. You can read all about garum, why we decided to name our blog after it, and what this blog is all about in About this, but for the sake of people in a hurry here’s a quick and dirty explanation.

Garum was the ketchup of the gods in Imperial Rome, the supreme condiment. It was a fish sauce, not in the sense of something you put on fish, but rather something made from fish. Romans slathered it on everything and high quality garum was priced at levels that only the very rich could afford. (I guess they needed something to add a little kick to all of those boiled larks tongues.) To modern sensibilities the Roman obsession with garum can seem a bit puzzling, especially in light of how garum is made. Imagine a basket of raw fish, now mix the fish with salt, now leave the basket to bake beneath the Mediterranean sun for, oh, three or four weeks. As the fish ferments some liquid will start to ooze out of the bottom of the basket. That’s garum.

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Still reading? The decline of the Roman Empire meant the decline of garum. It continues to be made in a few places in the Mediterranean, primarily around Naples, where it’s called colatura, but it’s not well known. In Asian cuisine fish sauce has a place of honor; it’s a critical ingredient. But in Western cooking garum has almost disappeared. Too bad. Despite the smelly oh-gross-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me aspect of its manufacture, garum itself is quite tasty. And as any Asian cook will tell you, fish sauce is a great way to instantly add some oomph to a dish that tastes a little underwhelming – like late night pasta where speed is at a premium.

Nuoc mam, Thai fish sauce, is manufactured using essentially the same process as that of the Romans, albeit a tad cleaned up and modernized. In Asia the fermented fish are sometimes pressed to encourage the release of even more liquid. That, and the length of time devoted to the fermentation process, are really the only differences.

Colatura, modern garum, has a rich meaty flavor that evokes high-end tuna packed in oil. I can’t claim to be an expert on nuoc mam, but the two or three kinds that seem to rotate through our fridge have a sharper saltier quality than colatura and more of a one-note anchovy taste, a distinction I might have expected, given their pricing. A few ounces of colatura ($16) costs the same as several liters of nuoc mam. A splash of colatura in extra virgin olive oil is a great dipping sauce, and you can’t go wrong sprinkling it on grilled seafood or adding a spoonful to a light pasta sauce (strong flavors will overwhelm it). Even if you take a pass on colatura it’s worth picking up a bottle of nuoc mam to broaden your ingredients list. We use nuoc mam about as often as we use anchovy paste, and for roughly the same things–soups, stews, stir-fries and even on watermelon (okay, we don’t use anchovy paste on watermelon, but we do use nuoc mam).

Garum is a primary ingredient in one of our house’s favorite pasta dishes. The schedules in our family–chef-wife, writer-dad, dancer-daughter–are so out of sync that we often end up cooking late, when all of us are finally home. Pasta aglio e olio ranks high on the list of midnight meals, but at the butt end of an evening peeling 27 cloves of garlic can seem like a chore. A faster, easier alternative is spaghetti with tomatoes, garlic and a couple of spoonfuls of garum. You can use either garum or nuoc mam in our recipe. We like ingredients where a little goes a long way and garum fits the bill. After tasting it, you may even forget how it’s made.

Spaghetti with grape tomatoes, garlic and garum

Start with 1 tablespoon of colatura or fish sauce, then taste, adding more if you like.

Kosher salt1 pound spaghetti¼ cup full-bodied extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling1½ pints grape tomatoes, rinsed and cut in half2 tablespoons garlic, sliced paper thin½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes1 tablespoon colatura (see note at end of post for purchasing info) or nuoc mam, plus more if you like it½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with salt. Add the pasta and stir constantly until the water returns to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes in a single layer, season with a pinch of salt and cook, without moving them, for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes, tossing a few times. Watch the garlic carefully–you don’t want it to burn. If necessary, lower the heat. Add the hot red pepper flakes and colatura and remove from the heat.

When the pasta is al dente, scoop it out of the water and add it directly to the sauté pan with the sauce along with ½ cup of the pasta cooking water. Put the pan back on a medium heat. Stir the pasta and sauce together until the spaghetti is evenly coated. Stir in the parsley.

Serve in warm pasta bowls, and offer grated cheese and olive oil for drizzling.

Jody notes:

Those of you who know me, know that when I get on hooked on something, it sticks to me like smoke and then I seem to find it in all corners of my travels… like that new word you discover and find every time you open up a book or a newspaper. Remember dukkah? I stumbled upon it in a Claudia Roden’s book, fell in love and then found it on tables from Iceland to South Africa. I had to restrain myself from putting it on every dish at Rialto. We still keep a Mason jar full of it at home and at the restaurant, but now that Rialto is Italian, I’m forced to use it more sparingly.

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Last fall I was thumbing through the Zingerman’s catalogue and came across their colatura. I was intrigued and passed the information to Brian, Rialto chef de cuisine. Fast forward to early February. I had just returned from a trip to South East Asia and was all about simple noodle dishes with lots of vegetables, herbs and fish sauce. This is far from Italian, but Brian and sous chef Peter were able to translate my enthusiasm into an amazing Italianesque bass dish with almonds, green peppers and garum. Hey hey, I discovered that the Asia and Mediterranean fish sauces had the same two ingredients … anchovies and salt. So garum is the new dukkah. We are putting it in everything at Rialto and of course, seeing it all over the place now.

Buying garum: You can find garum available from lots of online retailers, where it goes under various names–colatura, anchovy juice, anchovy syrup and garum. The one we bought from Zingerman’s mail order was $16 for a bit less than three and a half ounces.