Explainers

What is garum?

This ancient Roman staple is enjoying a renaissance in modern kitchens, from René Redzepi’s beef-based version to restaurant Pipit's vegan green garlic sauce. Plus, a recipe for garum fish stew by Sydney's Pendolino.

  • Serves 6
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Garum fish stew
In ancient times, garum, the fermented fish sauce, was made from the entrails of fresh fish placed in vats and layered with salt – and sometimes herbs – then pressed with a stone to extract the essence. It was used as a seasoning to add salinity and umami to dishes, and was so concentrated that only a few drops were needed. Commonly, garum was diluted in olive oil, wine and vinegar to make sauces, or diluted with water for drinking.
Today, colatura d'alici, the more refined product from Campania, is made with whole anchovies, while many restaurants are venturing into making their own garum, including Noma, which uses a variety of ingredients, such as beef and squid, and even bee pollen.
Ben Devlin, of Pipit in Pottsville, NSW, has also been experimenting. "We make most of ours with seafood – prawn head and oyster are really nice," he says. "Our green garlic garum is a little different in that it is a vegan sauce made with similar techniques."
At Saint Peter in Sydney, the team turn fish bits into their own garum; while in Perth, Guy Grossi's osteria, called Garum, uses it in the butter served with crab ravioli, and in just about everything else. Nino Zoccali, of Sydney's Pendolino, particularly likes it in braises and pasta.
A Thai or Korean fish sauce is a good substitute, but remember that the flavour and saltiness will vary, so use whatever you choose as you would salt, and season to taste.

Garum fish stew

20 mins preparation time (plus preparing crab) | 1 hr 5 mins cooking time | serves 6
"I like to use garum in braises and pasta dishes – it adds more sweetness than using salt," says Zoccali. I find it is particularly good with tomatoes and slow-cooked leeks or squid-ink pasta, as well as in this fish stew." This stew also goes brilliantly with soft polenta.
Recipe by Nino Zoccali

Ingredients

  • 2 live mud crabs (700gm-900gm each) or large blue swimmer crabs
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 1 large onion or leek, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 300 gm Southern calamari, cleaned (skin on)
  • 50 ml Vecchia Romagna brandy, Cognac or brandy
  • 125 ml dry white wine
  • 800 gm canned chopped tomatoes, preferably Mutti
  • 100 ml fish sauce (garum)
  • ½ cup basil, coarsely chopped
  • 400 gm clams, purged in water to remove sand
  • finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, to serve
  • 6 slices thick toasted sourdough bread, rubbed with garlic, to serve

Method

  • 1
    Kill crabs humanely (see cook's notes p152). To clean, lift the abdominal flap on the underside and pull off the top shell. Remove and discard the finger-like gills. Rinse crabs quickly under cold water, cut into quarters and crack the claws.
  • 2
    Heat oil in a large casserole or saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, celery, garlic and bay leaves, and stir until onion is translucent (15-20 minutes). Add calamari, increase heat to high and cook, turning occasionally, until golden (5 minutes). Add brandy, simmer until evaporated (1 minute), then add wine and simmer until almost fully evaporated. Add tomato, 75ml garum and 250ml water, reduce heat to low, cover with a lid, and simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sauce sticking, until calamari is tender (30 minutes).
  • 3
    Add basil and crab, making sure crab is submerged (add more water to cover if needed), cook for 5 minutes, then add mussels and clams, and cook until they open (3-4 minutes). Check seasoning, adding remaining garum if needed, to taste. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, scatter with parsley and serve with toasted sourdough.