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Something’s fishy

Fermented fish as a seasoning agent can be found in sauces and pastes from the Far East to the West

Bereft of the brassy boldness of Barcelona and the hedonistic attractions of Ibiza, Tarifa is a mere blip on Spain’s tourist radar. But for the adventure sports traveller, this tiny town in the Andalusian province of Cádiz on the southernmost coast of mainland Spain is nothing short of an adrenalin-saturated Valhalla. Besides being one of the world’s most popular wind-sporting destinations, Tarifa zealously guards a secret close to its heart...garum. All along the seashore west of Tarifa, among the ruins of the ancient Roman settlement of Baelo Claudia, one can find what used to be several factories for the preparation of garum, or fish sauce, once the town’s main industry. Long before fermentation became the buzzword in cookery that it is today, the Romans, Greeks and Byzantines had perfected the art of manufacturing garum, a prized condiment used in dishes like lamb stew, for example, as noted in the ancient Roman cookbook De Re Coquinaria (more commonly known as Apicius), compiled in the fourth century.

The Romans made garum by adding copious amounts of salt to tiny fish like mullet and fish intestines. This was left in earthen jars to ferment and liquefy for a few weeks. In fact, a few such garum jars were even discovered amidst the ruins of Pompeii! Wherever the Romans went, they took garum with them and so Roman settlements in far corners of the world have ruins of garum factories.

Once the mild-flavoured liquid rich in natural amino acid monosodium glutamate (MSG) was siphoned out, the concentrated garum residue was evaporated down to a thick paste called muria—an inferior product sold cheap to the poor to add flavour to their bland gruel.

The ruins of a Roman ‘garum’ factory in Tipaza, Algeria.
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The ruins of a Roman ‘garum’ factory in Tipaza, Algeria.

In Cetara, the small fishing village in Italy’s southern region of Campania, garum’s modern-day interpretation, colatura di alici, is made in much the same way. This amber-hued seasonal sauce is made from anchovies fished off the Amalfi coast between 25 March, Feast of Annunciation, and 22 July, the Feast of Mary Magdalene. It is doused over pasta and even a pizza Napoletana. Cetaranians even drizzle a few drops of the super-fishy colatura over their gelato.

Mahyaveh (or mehiawah, depending on the region) is what the people of the Middle East call their version of fish sauce, which has a distinctly spicy hit to it. In the southern part of Iran, especially in Larestan and Hormozgan, once fermented, the liquid of the sardines-anchovy-salt slurry is mixed with mustard and other spices, like cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, black pepper and thyme. In the Persian Gulf archipelago nation of Bahrain, mehiawah forms an integral part of the daily breakfast routine wherein breads like khubooz and the triangular donut-like zinjubari are dipped into a mixture of the fish sauce along with herbs like za’atar and sumac before eating.

The prowess of nam pla, or Thai fish sauce, as a flavouring agent is well-documented, as are its South-East Asian counterparts, which show us the condiment’s multifaceted nature. Sauces similar to nam pla are nuoc mam (flavoured with red chillies and lime juice) in Vietnam, nam pha in Laos, hom ha in China, saeu chot in Korea and shitsuru in Japan.

Speaking of Japan, katsuobushi, which is dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna, finds itself at the very epicentre of one of the country’s most revered “master stocks"—dashi. The umami-rich fulcrum of any soup, main dish and dipping sauce, dashi is made by steeping kombu (edible kelp) and kezurikatsuo (shavings of katsuobushi) in boiling water and extracting the decoction by passing it through a fine cheesecloth.

Not in the same league as fish sauce, though fiendishly popular nonetheless, the Cantonese oyster sauce is on the sweeter side, with a thicker body to it. This highly processed sauce is made from the extract of oysters and mixed with sugar, corn starch, caramel, colouring agents and even industrial MSG in some cases.

Fried meat with oyster sauce.
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Fried meat with oyster sauce.

Though they have their own version of a fish sauce, called patis, the Filipinos place their beloved bagoong alamang above all else. More like a pickle, this fermented paste is made with shrimp or krill that are mixed with salt and the bright red yeast rice, angkak, which hastens the fermentation process, besides lending to it a lurid magenta colour. Almost every dish in the Philippines, from the peanut-redolent kare-kare stew to the vegetable dish pinakbet, has a splodge of bagoong added to it for both flavour and texture.

What bagoong alamang is to the Philippines, the crumbly belachan is to Malaysia. This supremely pungent, funky-smelling condiment is made from tiny shrimp mixed with salt and then fermented and then ground into a smoother paste. Thereafter, it is sun-dried, shaped into blocks, and allowed to ferment again. Once ready to be introduced to a host of preparations like curries and laksas, a piece of the belachan brick is chiselled off, wrapped in a piece of aluminium foil and roasted over a pan till crumbly to the touch. Exactly like the belachan in both preparation and use is the Indonesian trassie, which can also be made from small fish called ikan, besides oedang, or shrimp.

Known by the moniker “Cambodian Cheese", prahok is both a fish substitute as well as a flavouring agent. This greyish-tinted paste is made from crushed, salted and fermented mud fish and stands in for fresh fish when the supply of the latter ebbs during the rainy season. In one of Cambodia’s most popular dishes, prahok ang, minced pork is mixed with prahok, spices and herbs, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.

The backstory

Interestingly, two table-side condiments that are an intrinsic part of our diet today have, or at least had at some point, fish as one of their ingredients.

Adapted from the recipe of the ancient 17th century ‘koechiap’ sauce that originated in the Hokkien region of south-eastern China.
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Adapted from the recipe of the ancient 17th century ‘koechiap’ sauce that originated in the Hokkien region of south-eastern China.


Adapted from the recipe of the ancient 17th century ‘koechiap’ sauce that originated in the Hokkien region of south-eastern China, it was made from a mix of pickled fish, mushrooms, soy sauce and spices. It was only in the 20th century that ketchup, as we know it today, began to have puréed tomatoes added to it, omitting the pickled fish.

Worcestershire sauce

Created in the 1830s by John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, chemists from Worcestershire, England, the original version of the sauce (that is still sold under the brand “The Original & Genuine Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce") was made from molasses, sugar, tamarind extract and anchovies, among other ingredients.

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