What is a garum? And how to use it for cooking

Extremely delicious and often misunderstood, garlic is a fermented fish sauce that has its origins in Roman times.. For more than ten centuries, it has managed to maintain its influence in the culinary world, even if the method of its preparation has changed: unlike the Romans, today’s garlic makers do not usually use huge quantities of fish, salt and sea water to prepare it, let alone stone tanks. While the label “garum” has been used (often incorrectly) to designate fish sauces obtained from fermentation without salt, real garlic remains as relevant as ever, and is loved by chefs around the world for its strong, rich umami flavors: With just a few drops of it, you get a whole new dish.

So what is a garum, exactly?

Pliny the Elder was one of the first to define garlic – which he called “a wonderful liquid” – as “a drink of choice consisting of fish guts and other parts which may be considered offal.” Today, brewer Sandor Katz describes it as “a classic Romanian name for fermented fish sauce,” a name that “is quite similar to contemporary Southeast Asian fish sauces, and typically uses less salt, resulting in a funky flavour.” Colatura di Alici, a light amber liquid made from fermented and salted anchovies still produced on the Amalfi Coast, is a direct heir to garlic, whose popularity and mass production declined dramatically with the fall of the Roman Empire.

How is garlic made?

A popular condiment in ancient Rome – called ketchup of the Roman world – garum was originally made from small fish such as sardines and mackerel, combined with brine and a long time. When people began making garlic in different parts of the world, aromatic herbs, spices, and even wine were added to the composition.

Before we get into the traditional garlic preparation method – and how it has influenced contemporary methods – it’s worth noting that ancient fish broth can be a little tricky. Since garum means different things at different times, some historical context is felt.

There is a lot of confusion and contradiction among modern scholars (archaeologists, nutritionists, ichthyologists) about the use of the term “garlic” – something that has become more complex because modern chefs have associated it with all kinds of fermented sauces they develop in restaurants, using ingredients as diverse as shellfish, vegetables and even egg whites. eggs.

The same source of confusion can be traced back to ancient Rome. Besides garlic, which has its origins in Greek and Phoenician cooking, the Romans made liquor, a different type of fish sauce. Liquamen’ acts as a general salt seasoning in cooking and as an ingredient [in] Compound dressings that were served as a dip and also poured over cooked meat, fish, and prepared dishes,” explains food historian Sally Grainger in Garome’s story A book considered by many experts as the Bible for the subject. According to Grainger, a salad in ancient Roman food whose work involved analyzing and experimentally recreating fish broth from Roman cuisine, the use of garlic as a culinary ingredient was relatively limited.

Sophia Papas

Garlic making was a gruesome task attributed to Roman slaves and laborers. They removed the small fish, then dumped everything – entrails, bones, everything – into stone tanks or large clay pots called amphora, and covered them with a brine made by combining different amounts of salt and sea water. The ensuing fermentation process, which could take nearly a year, relied on the sun to get bacteria from the fish’s guts to break down its flesh and turn it into a thick liquid. Grainger explained in her book that the Latin word “garum” refers specifically to pre-fermented blood and offal sauce, “rather than the generic term” for fermented fish sauce.

It’s the chemical decomposition process that allows garlic to develop its complex flavor. When a fish’s intestinal bacteria spread through its body, it initiates the fermentation process, which in turn converts the fish’s proteins into amino acids such as glutamic acid and glutamate, giving garlic a strong umami taste.

How was garlic used in the kitchen?

“It is very difficult to say precisely how it is used,” Grainger wrote. “There are hints that garlic was a table sauce that was poured over food, and its glossy black appearance would make it particularly visible to elite consumers.”

Throughout Roman times, garlic was sold in different grades and prices, depending on the fish used and the concentration of the liquid – the thinner the better, and the more expensive it was. Weaker versions of the sauce went to more modest kitchens and the Roman army. It was used as a flavoring agent for pork, fish, and even wine, and was also combined with ingredients such as pepper, vinegar, and oil to create new compound seasonings. And because it was made from fish, it was also considered a source of protein. Over time, the garum became so essential to the ancient Roman palate that a network of trade routes were established from places as diverse as the Iberian Peninsula, the Mediterranean and North Africa, where large-scale production sites were built to satisfy the Roman craving for smelly liters and liters .

How modern chefs are remaking garlic?

Sandor Katz explains that many modern chefs use the name garlic to describe sauces made by fermenting seafood, animals, insects, or even vegetables with salt and koji, which is the Japanese name for grains inoculated with the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. “These can be wonderfully tasty, but they are a departure from traditional garlic,” Katz notes.

In the brewing lab of Rene Redzepi’s Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, koji is one of the ingredients used to create different versions of garlic. It is fermented in a warm solution of koji rice. “When we first started exploring these traditional processes, we realized there was an opportunity for us to use other ingredients to produce strong flavors as well,” explains Jason White, the restaurant’s director of brewing.

Since at least 2014, Noma’s fermentation team has created garlic from various ingredients such as beef, chicken wings, various vegetables, smoked mushrooms, and egg whites. “We were incredibly fascinated, how substituting meat for vegetables can give us different and interesting sauces,” White says.

Besides its ability to break down proteins into free amino acids (which create an umami flavor), koji has also helped make sauces that are strong but still delicate. We found out by not using courage and blood [like the Romans did]We could focus more on the meat, which gave us cleaner flavors, so we naturally started using koji instead of the natural enzymes found in meat,” says White. Another advantage of koji is that it produces less salty garlic, he adds, “Flavorwise,” you get. It contains more ingredients and not just salt, which makes garlic an incredibly versatile product.”

Many other restaurants make garlic from a mixture of protein, water, salt, and koji. “Koji is the biggest variable, not only if it is rice, barley, or some other grain, but the way we grow it or take it out of [fermentation] Trey Smith, co-chef and co-owner of the New Orleans Saint-Germain restaurant, explains. “The process changed from batch to batch as we made adjustments, tasted the difference, and recorded inputs and outputs along the way.”

So what are chefs looking for in garlic?

Smith looks for umami-rich sauces that reflect the flavor of his restaurant spices. “For example, we will season roast lamb with lamb garlic or we will poach lobsters in lobster garlic butter to amplify the natural flavor,” he explains. “Lamb garlic should taste like roasted lamb extract. Fish sauce and umami soy sauce can add to the dish, but sometimes it changes the overall flavor profile in a way you don’t want it to. Seasoning a steak with beef garlic makes it taste more like beef.” Smith adds that beef garlic is made with “koji that has grown a little slower than the ones we use in other garlic. It results in a sauce that is nutty, bitter, sweet, and tastes toasty.”

What are some other ways chefs use garlic?

Garlic’s applications are as broad as its flavor: restaurants used it in soups, sauces, meats, and even cocktails. Pere Planagumà, chef at Les Cols in Girona, Spain, turns Cantabrian anchovies into his own brand of Garum, called Escata, which he recommends for use with rice, pasta, cheese, chips, and various desserts.

Dessert is also the garlic destination that Josh Nieland, chef at St Peter’s in Sydney, makes from the heads, bones, and scraps of small fish like sardines and mackerel; He uses it to flavor the caramel that he puts in pies and other sweet dishes.

Elsewhere, chefs use garlic to finish a variety of dishes and as a base for sauces and seasonings that bring out the flavor of both grilled meats and raw vegetables.

If you’re not a chef, where can you buy garlic, and how do you use it?

Thanks to specialized stores and Amazon, it is possible to buy garlic from all over the world. Zingerman’s, for example, sells Garum colatura Anchovy sauce imported from Italy. From Andalusia, Spain – a former important location for garlic production – Matiz’s Flor de Garum is an excellent sauce made only with anchovies, salt and spices (from oregano to black pepper). You can also find Escata garum from Pere Planagumà, made with Cantabrian anchovies, online. Smoked mushrooms and garlic egg whites are slated to launch online sometime this winter. Once you get your hands on some garlic, start experimenting with it. While it’s good to start slowly, using only a few drops at a time, just remember: the world is fermented anchovies.

Rafael Tonon Journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal. sOvia Papas Pittsburgh-based illustrator.

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