Research and the Tingling Tongue

Remains of an ancient garum fish factory at Ba...
Image via Wikipedia

I have to admit that I do procrastinate from time to time.  After waiting quite some time to purchase Grainger’s Apicius to discover the secret of Roman garum, it finally arrived. If you have been following the Writers Read page ( you will see that I spent some time reviewing recipes and the history of the Roman kitchen.  Both of Grainger’s books about Apicius and my Italian book about being at table with the Lombards and Goths mention that the best way to imitate garum without having crocks of fermenting fish and spice mixtures hanging about in the sunshine is to use Nuac Mam fish sauce from an Asian market.

Purchasing this at the Asian market was an experience in itself: convincing the Cantonese women who pretended not to speak English that I really did want the fish sauce;their telling me that it wasn’t in the store (largest Asian market in San Diego area) and my showing them the bottle when I found it on a display rack crammed to the brim with different brands and types.

Today I decided that before I tried this on a roast leg of lamb I would do a small tasting with turkey meatballs.  I chose the turkey because it is fairly bland because I wanted to get the full garum experience.

Grainger suggests diluting the fish sauce with white grape juice to closely approximate the finer garum of the Roman table.  I poured the fish sauce through a coffee filter to filter out the floating spices and peppers and then added an equal amount of white grape juice.

I poured a small amount of my home-made garum into a shallow dish and then dipped my meat pieces into the sauce.  The taste was unexpectedly mild and almost sweet.  I finished the meatballs and decided that the sauce wasn’t as off-putting and horrendous as suggested by many historians.  Then I noticed a tingling aftertaste on my tongue and understood why this sauce was subtle and a favorite on the Roman table.

The bottom line is that research is not always boring.  Research can bring you some surprises.  The more you know, the richer your story. Most of all, primary research, performed by the writer, is the best way to get the details right…and you might have fun along the way.

Maybe I’m ready to try garum on poached peaches.

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