Did fish sauce in Vietnam come from Ancient Rome via the Silk Road? The similarities between nuoc mam and Roman garum

  • There are striking similarities between ancient Roman condiment garum and Asian fish sauces such as Vietnam’s nuoc mam, nam pla in Thailand and Japan’s gyosho
  • Food historians are divided on the origins of Southeast Asian fish sauces, with some arguing they took their cue from soy sauce making in ancient China

A wide variety of fish sauces and condiments can be found throughout Asia, adapted to local cooking traditions. According to experts, they are intriguingly similar to an ancient Roman dressing known as garum.

One in particular, Vietnam’s iconic nuoc mam – made with fermented fish, usually anchovies, and salt – bears a resemblance in taste, composition and texture to the garum fish sauce first produced around 100BC, according to food historian Giorgio Franchetti.

He is a scholar of ancient Roman history and the author of the book Dining with the Ancient Romans, which was recently translated into English.

“Vietnam’s nuoc mam can be described as a ‘living fossil’ or ‘living archaeological culinary finding’ that maintains the ancient Roman tradition and flavour,” Franchetti says. “Recent studies have shown that nuoc mam is today the closest existing sauce to the garum of an earlier age.”

A worker stirs traditional fish sauce at a factory in Nghe An, Vietnam. Photo: Shutterstock
A worker stirs traditional fish sauce at a factory in Nghe An, Vietnam. Photo: Shutterstock

Other similar Asian fish sauces include Cambodia’s prahok, the Philippines’ patis, Thailand’s nam pla and Japan’s gyosho, says Franchetti, who notes a Roman connection can also be found in the Indonesian word for salt, “garam”, given that garum was used by the Romans as a substitute for salt.

The garum condiment, hailed by the great Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius and authors such as Pliny, who described it as a “delicious liqueur”, was a strongly flavoured and pricey product made with layers of salt and fish – mainly tuna, salmon, anchovies, sardines, fish blood and innards – left to soak in containers.

The sauce’s name stems from a now unknown type of fish called “garos”, used by the ancient Greeks, who were among the first to make an earlier type of garum, called garon.

In ancient Rome, the flavoursome dip was the second most expensive liquid on the market after perfumes, and is said to have had an unexpectedly pleasant smell. It developed a nasty smell only after it had become foul, explains Franchetti, and even then, the Roman chefs developed miraculous techniques to restore the condiment for lavish meals.

Garum, largely produced in factories in Pompeii, was enjoyed in its purest form or with the addition of spices and aromatic herbs such as fennel and mint. It was often added to wine, olive oil and vinegar, and other by-products of its fermentation were also used, including a paste-like substance found at the bottom of amphora – storage jars – which the Romans called hallec.

An ancient Roman garum amphora. Garum was used by the Romans as a substitute for salt.
An ancient Roman garum amphora. Garum was used by the Romans as a substitute for salt.
Fish sauce bowls sit ready to be used. There have been many theories over the origins of the condiment. Photo: Shutterstock
Fish sauce bowls sit ready to be used. There have been many theories over the origins of the condiment. Photo: Shutterstock

Believed to have medicinal properties, garum was used as a disinfectant, eye and ear cleanser, to treat burns and dog bites, and to fight high cholesterol. In Italy, what survives of garum today can be tasted in a salted anchovy sauce made in the southern town of Cetara, near Naples.

There are no documents or sources linking garum to nuoc mam or other Asian fermented fish sauces. According to Eugene Anderson, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, a food and nutrition expert who has written many books on China, the jury is still out.

“The ‘fermented’ fish sauces of south China and Southeast Asia are all one complex, but the Roman garum is probably an independent invention, though we can’t be sure,” he says. “It’s the same thing, basically, but there seem to be no intermediate forms that would imply a link.”

Food historian Giorgio Franchetti is a scholar of ancient Roman history and the author of the book Dining with the Ancient Romans.
Food historian Giorgio Franchetti is a scholar of ancient Roman history and the author of the book Dining with the Ancient Romans.

Garum and similar sauces may have travelled to Asia even before the rise of the Roman Empire, transported by voyagers from ancient Greece, or afterwards, along the Silk Road.

There are tales, more or less supported by scholars of ancient history, of “phantom” Roman legions lost in China who might have carried the fermented sauce with them, as it would not go off on long journeys. According to another theory, there was a direct route to Asia through Mesopotamia, where fermented fish sauces were popular as far back as 3000BC, Franchetti says.

“There is insufficient evidence to readily support the idea that the recipe for fermented fish travelled across the Silk Road and influenced nuoc mam. It’s not impossible, but there isn’t a historical smoking gun that would prove this theory,” says Trinh Khanh Linh, a doctoral student of Vietnamese culinary history at the University of Michigan in the United States, who instead sees a potential link between the Vietnamese staple and China’s soy sauce, which is also a product of fermentation.

Is it linked to the Mediterranean or to China? … Given that Vietnam and China are geographically neighbours, I venture that Vietnamese nuoc mam has linkages with what was happening in China

Vietnamese cuisine expert and chef Andrea Nguyen

“Nuoc mam uses the same technique as Chinese soy sauce production, and good nuoc mam shares the same level of consistency and clarity as desired for soy sauce,” she says. “We know that soy sauce is extremely ancient.

“Given the relationship between China and Vietnam, this could imply that the technique for producing fish sauce came from Chinese soy sauce production and was then modified and adapted to Vietnamese resources.”

Amber-coloured nuoc mam, used as a condiment with many Vietnamese dishes, has a less pungent flavour than other Asian fish sauces and its use has contributed to the global success of many dishes from the country. A meal is not Vietnamese until fish sauce is included, says Linh.

Fish sauce bottles on sale in Vietnam. Photo: Shutterstock
Fish sauce bottles on sale in Vietnam. Photo: Shutterstock

“The first taste of the fish sauce is salty and umami, but the aftertaste is subtly and surprisingly sweet,” Linh says. “I think the success of pho [noodle soup] internationally lies in the combination of fish sauce with the bone broth, star anise, cinnamon and cloves. The sweetness of this broth holds appeal even for people who are typically sceptical of the pungent smell of fish sauce.”

Acclaimed chef Peter Cuong Franklin, owner of Anan Restaurant and Nhau Nhau Bar in Ho Chi Minh City, believes nuoc mam “may trace its origin back to garum” given that the Vietnamese version is also made by interleaving layers of anchovies with sea salt and letting it ferment in wood or ceramic containers for about 12 months.

“This sauce is the indispensable secret ingredient that gives local dishes the taste and smell that make the cuisine distinctive,” Franklin says.

Chef Peter Cuong Franklin, owner of Anan Restaurant and Nhau Nhau Bar in Ho Chi Minh City.
Chef Peter Cuong Franklin, owner of Anan Restaurant and Nhau Nhau Bar in Ho Chi Minh City.

While the origins of nuoc mam may be unclear, the dipping sauce is such an integral part of the Vietnamese national identity that it plays a role in the origin myth of the Vietnamese people, the story of Dragon Prince Lac Long Quan – whose totem was a fish – his wife Au Co and their descendants, the Hung kings, says Linh.

“This indicates that regardless of whether nuoc mam was actually around in Vietnamese prehistory, Vietnamese conceptions of national identity certainly chose to project nuoc mam back into that history as a key token of what it means to be Vietnamese.”

Fermented fish sauces and dishes from different periods and places around the world show that various civilisations have found fermentation to be the best and easiest way to preserve food, Franchetti says.

Trinh Khanh Linh, a doctoral student of Vietnamese culinary history at the University of Michigan in the US.
Trinh Khanh Linh, a doctoral student of Vietnamese culinary history at the University of Michigan in the US.

Nowadays, tasty fermented fish sauces, broths, condiments and dishes can be found across Europe and the Arab countries, from the French pissalat – anchovy purée flavoured with cloves, thyme, bay leaf and black pepper mixed with olive oil – to Egypt’s fesikh (fermented, salted and dried grey mullet).

In Scandinavia, locals have a soft spot for even stronger-tasting foods that take fermentation techniques one step further. One popular and smelly speciality in Iceland during Christmas and New Year’s Eve festivities is a fermented shark meat delicacy called hakarl. The shark flesh is left to season in pits dug deep in the ice, cut into strips and hung to dry for months.

Vietnamese cuisine expert and chef Andrea Nguyen, author of The Pho Cookbook, also ponders the mysterious origin of fish sauce.

Vietnamese cuisine expert and chef Andrea Nguyen.
Vietnamese cuisine expert and chef Andrea Nguyen.

“Is it linked to the Mediterranean or to China?” she says. “The Chinese fermented fish with soybeans and salt to make a condiment during the Zhou dynasty [1046-256 BC]. Given that Vietnam and China are geographically neighbours, I venture that Vietnamese nuoc mam has linkages with what was happening in China.”

Regardless, nuoc mam is a staple, appreciated throughout Vietnam and beyond, Nguyen adds.

“Producers range from big to small,” she says. “My grandmother used to make it every year for her family. Fish sauce isn’t a go-to condiment in modern-day Mediterranean and Chinese cooking, but it is in Vietnamese cuisine.”

By : Silvia Marchetti – SCMP

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