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Umami — fish sauces through the ages

Figure 1. Bottles of modern fish sauces from South-East Asia. Modern methods for the production of such sauces use processes very similar to those used by the ancient Romans.
Figure 2. Terracotta dolia, or large earthenware vases, in the garden of the “Garum Shop” in 1st century AD Pompeii.
Figure 3. Dried remains of allec found in a dolium in the “Garum Shop” in the 1st century A.D Pompeii.
Figure 4. First century AD salting vats (cetariae) in the Roman fish processing installation at Almuñecar, Spain. Some of these ancient fish sauce production plants had huge output capacities.

Umami describes the taste of foods rich in glutamic acid. Found naturally in many different foods, it is especially prominent in modern Southeast Asian fish sauces. Since ancient Romans used fish sauce extensively as a condiment in their cuisine, they must have also enjoyed the taste of umami.
by Prof. Robert I. Curtis

Umami, the distinctive taste of modern eastern cuisine, describes the taste of foods rich in glutamic acid and two ribonucleotides, 5’-inosinate and 5’-guanylate. These substances occur naturally in various meats, fruits, vegetables, and certain processed foods, such as cheese, fish sauce and soy sauce. Umami foods have achieved a widespread popularity in the United States, where some restaurants now offer a special menu selection composed of a series of natural foods and culinary dishes designed to highlight the taste of umami.

Although ancient Romans did not have all the foods we enjoy currently, such as tomatoes and spinach, they did consume many of the foods identified today as containing significant amounts of natural umami substances. The identity of these ancient umami foods has been derived from a variety of ancient sources, such as paintings and mosaics, scientific analyses of pollen, carbonised fruits and vegetables and animal bones found at archaeological sites. Other sources of information are the literary works of agricultural writers, encyclopedists, satirists, and especially the cookbook of Apicius that contains some 465 recipes utilising vegetables, pulses, fowl, quadrupeds and sea animals. Included in Roman umami foods are carrots, mushrooms, cabbage, asparagus, peas, onions, grapes and apples. Pork and chicken were favorite meats, beef somewhat less so. Sea foods included sardines, mackerel, tunny, oysters and prawns. Although these foods contain umami substances, how do we know that Romans had a specific taste for umami?

Ancient Roman umami
Today, practical food historians, combining information from ancient recipes, modern cooking methods and intuition, attempt to reproduce the flavour of Roman food. Because ancient recipes are often incomplete, vague, or use ingredients, such as silphium, that are either no longer extant or are difficult to obtain, we can never be sure if we have replicated exactly the taste of Roman food. Nevertheless, most of these “recreated” dishes probably come close to their ancient predecessors, because the primary condiment used in Roman recipes is also the well-known ingredient found in many traditional dishes of modern Southeast Asia. The flavour of ancient Roman cuisine, like that of its modern counterpart, derived from the frequent use of umami substances found in fish sauce. Of the 465 recipes recorded in Apicius’ cookbook, at least 75 % include a fish sauce. A close look at the production processes of ancient and modern fish sauces shows that, generally speaking, they are analogous to each other and would therefore impart similar tastes to food.

Production processes
Romans produced four different fish sauces: garum, liquamen, allec, and muria. Garum was the primary sauce produced by the hydrolysis of small whole fish or fish innards in the presence of salt through natural fermentation for a period of several months. Liquamen was similar to garum, but its precise nature remains obscure.
The undissolved fish material remaining from garum production was called allec. Muria was the salty solution resulting from osmosis during the salting of whole, eviscerated fish or slices of fish meat.
Ancient literary sources describe how Romans placed fish innards or small, whole fish, particularly anchovies, sardines and mackerel, into a container and added salt at prescribed ratios, and sometimes various herbs, spices or wine. They used weights to press down on the concoction, covered it, and allowed it to remain in the sun for several months. They then withdrew the liquid garum using a basket, filtered it, and placed it in a terracotta transport vessel, or amphora. This description, sparse though it is, bears a marked similarity to the production processes for modern Southeast Asian fish sauces.

Current production methods in SE Asia
These vary between countries, and even within a country. Family-level production often utilises a small earthen jar, while small-scale producers need only multiply the number of jars to produce enough for local needs. Large-scale manufactories use large barrels or concrete vats to produce sauce not only for local consumption but also for export. Regardless of the level of production, the process is essentially the same. Producers place small, whole fish, usually anchovies, into a container and mix in salt in a specified ratio. The better quality sauces do not constitute a health hazard, since a fish-to-salt ratio of 5:1 or less and a relatively low pH of 5.0 to 6.5 are not conducive to the growth of aerobic bacteria. This prevents putrefaction and reduces the chances of botulism poisoning. Weights are then placed on the mixture, the container is covered, and fermentation allowed to continue for up to a year or more, although the fermentation period can be reduced by boiling the mixture. When complete, the sauce is removed by ladling out the liquid or by draining it from a conduit at the bottom. Once filtered, they place the sauce into bottles for local sale or export [Figure 1]. Clearly then, Roman fish sauces, both in basic ingredients (fish and salt) and in production procedures, parallel almost exactly the traditional fish sauces of Southeast Asia

Methods used by Romans
Romans processed fish sauces at the same production levels as modern producers. Archaeological evidence for family-level production is, unsurprisingly, almost totally lacking, since the possibility of survival of the small terracotta vessels identifiable as used to make fish sauce is remote, but several epistolary papyri from Roman Egypt do mention fish sauce production at the family level. A good example of production for local cosumption is the “Garum Shop” in Pompeii [Figure 2]. Inserted into the peristyle garden of a private house, fish sauce production took place in six large earthenware vases known as dolia; when excavated, each vessel still contained the dried remains of fish sauce (allec) [Figure 3]. The Garum shop in Pompeii was quite small and undoubtedly restricted its economic range to the city or the surrounding area. A large installation utilising purpose-made vats probably operated outside the city near the coast but evidence for it has not been forthcoming. What such an installation looked like can probably be seen at many fish-salting installations discovered throughout the Roman world, since these fish processing centres show a remarkable degree of homogeneity.

Fish processing plants through the ages
Basic siting requirements for processing fish include a source of fish, salt and fresh water. Local-level production can be confined to a few purpose-constructed vats, called cetariae, square or rectangular in shape, varying in size and depth, and constructed of a rubble core coated with water-tight cement [Figure 4]. Some places have several relatively small installations that, taken individually, would probably be focussed on the local population. But, if taken together, the potential capacity of these salteries could not only easily supply local needs but also have much left over for export. This could certainly be the case at Sabratha, in modern Libya, where 18 sets of vats appear in groups of 2, 3 or 4, all located within the city. The vats have an average capacity of about 2.0 m3 each and an estimated workshop output of 3 – 10 m3 end-product. Although the city is only partially excavated, these installations, assuming that all vats functioned simultaneously and at peak capacity, could provide over 100 m3. Consequently, while the individual producers operated at the local level, the city as a whole might be viewed as an exporter of salt-fish products.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered numerous remains of large and small fish salting installations, dating between the second century BC and sixth century AD, many of which lie along the seasonal migration route of tunny. The best-documented areas are those in Spain, Portugal, France, and North Africa in the Western Roman Empire, and in the Black Sea in the Crimea and Strait of Kertch. Over sixty fish processing sites have been confirmed for Spain and Portugal alone, including large centres at Troia, which had a production capacity that exceeded 600 m3. But even this one pales in comparison to salting installations at Lixus in Morocco that had a capacity of over 1,000 m3 of fish sauces, which were then placed into amphorae and transported to markets throughout the Roman Empire, where Romans of all social levels had access to them.

Chemical composition
Since these sauces have not survived, except for the dried remains of allec, their taste can best be learned from the biochemical analysis of their modern counterparts. Modern fish sauce contains significant amounts of protein primarily in the form of essential and nonessential amino acids, particularly glutamic acid, the most abundant amino acid in fish sauce, followed, in varying order by aspartic acid, lysine, alanine and valine. The amino acid profile of ancient fish sauces remains unknown but the close parallel between ancient and modern sauces in ingredients and production methods strongly suggests that it was similar. Scientists attribute the taste of fish sauce, often described as a blend of ammoniacal, meaty, and cheesy, to a combination of taste-active components, such as volatile fatty acids and ketones, but particularly amino acids. Romans, therefore, used fish sauce as a condiment in many of the ways inhabitants of Southeast Asia employ them today. Fish sauce imparted a moderately strong, salty, and slightly fishy taste to Roman dishes that, in synergistic combination with other foods produced a distinctly savory flavour today called umami. Roman food, consequently, had that combination of taste and smell that we associate with modern oriental cuisine. Diners today can now savour what the ancient Romans enjoyed over two thousand years ago.

Selected bibliography

  • Beddows CG. Fermented Fish and Fish Products. In Microbiology of Fermented Foods. Brian J B Wood, ed London: Elsevier, 1985; 2: 1.
  • Curtis RI. Umami and the Foods of Classical Antiquity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90, Suppl. (2009): 712S –18S.
  • Etienne Robert and Françoise Mayet. Salaisons et Sauces de Poisson Hispaniques. Paris: E de Boccard, 2002.
  • Grocock C & Grainger S. trans. Apicius. pub by Prospect Books, 2006, Totnes, Devon, UK.
  • Lee C-H, Steinkraus KH & Reilly PJA, eds. Fish Fermentation Technology. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1993.
  • Lopetcharat K et al. Fish Sauce Products and Manufacturing: A Review. Food Reviews International 2001;17: 65.
  • Ninomiya K. Natural Occurrence. Food Reviews International 1998;14:177.
  • Ninomiya K. Umami: a Universal Taste. Food Reviews International 2002;
    18: 23.
  • Park JN et al. Taste-active Components in a Vietnamese Fish Sauce. Fisheries Science 2002; 68: 913.
  • Saisithi P. Traditional Fermented Fish: Fish Sauce Production. In Fisheries Processing. Biotechnological Applications. ed by A M Martin, pub by Chapman & Hall London, 1994.
  • Wilson A. Commerce and industry in Roman Sabratha. Libyan Studies 1999; 30: 29.
  • Wongkhalaung C. Industrialisation of Thai Fish Sauce (Nam Pla). in Industrialization of Indigenous Fermented Foods. 2nd ed. ed by Steinkraus KH, pub by. New York: Marcel Dekker Inc., New York 2004, pp 647–705.

The author
Robert I. Curtis
Professor Emeritus,
Department of Classics,
University of Georgia,
Athens, Georgia, USA


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