It’s another fermented fish sauce!

It’s amazing how often these ingredients come up in human cuisine. I have a couple of bottles of Asian fish sauces in my cupboard, it was a key element in Roman foods as garum, and what they all have in common is that they are made by taking large quantities of whole small fish and letting them ferment and liquefy into a spicy umami-rich sauce. Now I learn that Worcestershire sauce is also made by letting anchovies decay. I shouldn’t be surprised.

Although the story about how the original mixture that was made and tested is troubling. It tasted terrible, so they put the bottle away in the basement, and then years later, someone came along and decided to taste it again? When I find old leftovers I forgot in the refrigerator a few weeks before, I’m not tempted in the slightest. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t neglect them long enough, and I should let them a bit more tang, festering in the dark for a couple of years.


  1. rietpluim says

    I guess the lesson to be learned is, once food has gone bad, it gets better by going worse.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    These recipes must have been discovered in the medieval age when someone was close to starving to death, and tried everything they found in the cellars.
    Consider icelandic sour shark, fermented in a pit in the ground (seriously). Or the herring we eat in north Sweden, once the content of the cans has been so fermented that the cans are literally bulging from internal pressure.
    There is also some kind of garlic they store in northern Iran to make it…. taste in an interesting way.

  3. kestrel says

    Haha, this reminds me of cheese. I’m a cheese maker. Sometimes I’ll hear someone say, “OH NO! I left the milk out for a couple of hours!” And I think, well, that’s a start, but you’re going to have to leave it out for a lot longer than that if you want to make something really good with it. :-)

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Tpyo, Lord of misspelling strikes again!
    Anyway, who managed to invent the gorgonzola cheese? I am told some people lose their sense of smell after a stroke, that would explain it.

  5. Cuttlefish says

    I think it was Dave Barry who suggested that all of British cuisine was based on a dare.

  6. Alt-X says

    I can’t eat shepherd’s pie without it. But had no idea it contained Anchovies. TIL!

  7. blf says

    In Roy Lewis’s sadly semi-neglected but utterly brilliant comic novel The Evolution Man (also known by several other titles) there is a short passage something like (paraphrasing): “We must never forget the many prehistoric researchers who gave their lives to determine what wasn’t edible.”

  8. says

    With only a few exceptions, everything edible that nature – or, in this case, fortuitous fermentation – has to offer has been discovered and domesticated long ago. Starvation, indeed, is the mother of invention here. I sometimes shudder thinking of all the poisonous mushrooms and slimy bugs that hqve been ingested throughout the ages…

  9. blf says

    [W]ho managed to invent the gorgonzola cheese?

    A genius, or as legend has it, a careless cheesemaker. Or, as the mildly deranged penguin has it, she nailed the guy to the floor for a few days until the cheeses ripened enough to dissolve his chains; he was too embarrassed to admit what happened and so invented the story of chasing after his girlfriend and forgetting about the curds; romantic entanglements with pretty ladies being considerably more understandable in 7th(?) century Italy than than having a small tuxedoed bird smelling slightly of herring jumping up-and-down on you whilst yelling in an incomprehensible language rarely spoken outside of some insignificant islands far to the North…

  10. cartomancer says

    Pliny the Elder thought it a wonderful medicinal substance as well as a useful cooking sauce. Though he also thought that frogs turn into slime to survive the winter and a pair of dog testicles hung round your forehead was a good cure for migranes Hist. Nat. 31.43-4 has the details of garum and its derivatives:

    “Another liquid, too, of a very exquisite nature, is that known as “garuim:” it is prepared from the intestines of fish and various parts which would otherwise be thrown away, macerated in salt; so that it is, in fact, the result of their putrefaction. Garum was formerly prepared from a fish, called “garos” by the Greeks; who assert, also, that a fumigation made with its head has the effect of bringing away the afterbirth.

    At the present day, however, the most esteemed kind of garum is that prepared from the scomber in the fisheries of Carthago Spartaria. It is known as “garumn of the allies,” and for a couple of congii we have to pay but little less than one thousand sesterces. Indeed, there is no liquid hardly, with the exception of the unguents, that has sold at higher prices of late; so much so, that the nations which produce it have become quite ennobled thereby. There are fisheries, too, of the scomber on the coasts of Mauretania and at Carteia in Bætica, near the Straits which lie at the entrance to the Ocean; this being the only use that is made of the fish. For the production of garum, Clazomenæ is also famed, Pompeii, too, and Leptis; while for their muria, Antipolis, Thurii, and of late, Dalmatia,8 enjoy a high reputation.

    Alex, which is the refuse of garum, properly consists of the dregs of it, when imperfectly strained: but of late they have begun to prepare it separately, from a small fish that is otherwise good for nothing, the apua of the Latins, or aphua of the Greeks, so called from the fact of its being engendered from rain. The people of Forum Julii make their garum from a fish to which they give the name of “lupus.” In process of time, alex has become quite an object of luxury, and the various kinds that are now made are infinite in number. The same, too, with garum, which is now prepared in imitation of the colour of old honied wine, and so pleasantly flavoured as to admit of being taken as a drink. Another kind, again, is dedicated to those superstitious observances which enjoin strict chastity, and that prepared from fish without scales, to the sacred rites of the Jews. In the same way, too, alex has come to be manufactured from oysters, sea-urchins, sea-nettles, cammari, and the liver of the surmullet; and a thousand different methods have been devised of late for ensuring the putrefaction of salt in such a way as to secure the flavours most relished by the palate.

    Thus much, by the way, with reference to the tastes of the present day; though at the same time, it must be remembered, these substances are by no means without their uses in medicine. Alex, for instance, is curative of scab in sheep, incisions being made in the skin, and the liquor poured therein. It is useful, also, for the cure of wounds inflicted by dogs or by the sea-dragon, the application being made with lint. Recent burns, too, are healed by the agency of garum, due care being taken to apply it without mentioning it by name. It is useful, too, for bites inflicted by dogs, and for that of the crocodile in particular; as also for the treatment of serpiginous or sordid ulcers. For ulcerations, and painful affections of the mouth and ears, it is a marvellously useful remedy.

  11. microraptor says

    Given the toxicity of pufferfish, I’ve long wondered how people survived eating it long enough to figure out how to make fugu safely.

  12. jazzlet says

    There are a variety of liquids that taste better after being left in a cellar for a while, beer, whisky, cider, wine, sherry, port, vinegars (think balsamic), to mention a few. Mr Jazz makes beer from scratch and has often found that an initially unpalatable brew that seemed destined for slug pubs has become delicious with sufficient maturation. Besides liquids and the cheese mentioned by other commentators there are preserves like pickles, chutneys and especially marmalade; mature (as in as old as you’ve got sufficient storage for) marmalade is different from fresh marmalade in the same way beer is different from whiskey. The mature marmalade we are eating now is, I think – I forgot to put the date on it, at least five years old and is delicious.

  13. unclefrogy says

    @14 I think what you say hints at the discovery of all of the foods we have discovered that are good when aged or fermented. We started by eating it fresh and raw then cooked and what do we do with the surplus? well we put it somewhere safe for later and thus being thrifty we prospered. We soon found that some of the stored food was turned into even better food having been stored and “spoiled” and it would keep even longer. Simple genius

    uncle frogy

  14. whheydt says

    Olives… Possibly found floating in sea water (salt cure) during a famine or even a local food shortage? Or consider bleu cheese…shot through with veins of mold…

  15. shoeguy says

    Garum is a condiment beloved by cultures all over the world. Chinese and Japanese also ferment (not rot) trash fish and sardines into their fish sauces. Fermentation produces, as I have read, a compound that is very close to the flavor enhancer MSG. ( ) rotting fish would be disgusting but fermented fish is something all together different. Beer, by the rotting fish analogy, would be rotting bread. Beer is not disgusting. Damn Minnesotans need to get out more.

  16. vole says

    @9 Much love here also for The Evolution Man. A neglected masterpiece. I gladly second the recommendation.

  17. Rich Woods says

    @cartomancer #12:

    Pompeii, too

    Ah, Pliny, you poor bastard. If only you’d known.

  18. Andrew Dalke says

    Another word: kiviaq. Skin a seal. Use the skin and blubber to make a sack. Stuff it full with 300-500 auk birds. Seal tightly. Throw it under the house and block the access so the dogs can’t get in. Wait about 6 months. Open and eat.

  19. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Just fertilized my tomatoes, suffering from blossom rot, with pellets from fermented fish parts. Contains 8% calcium, which the lack of caused the blossom rot.

  20. Larry says

    Given the toxicity of pufferfish, I’ve long wondered how people survived eating it long enough to figure out how to make fugu safely.

    That’s what serfs were for.

  21. David Dobson says

    @Salty Current #19 “Annie’s Naturals makes a vegan Worcestershire.”

    Vegan? That’s not Worcestershire Sauce, then. A crucial component has been omitted during a crucial part of the sauce-making. This puts it apart from even alcohol-free beer (blech!) which at least deserves the name because it was brewed as well as any similar beer and had alcohol removed afterwards. What you describe is just a few spices and molasses in a vinegar solution. It misses the central essence of WS entirely.

  22. magistramarla says

    The dressing for Caesar salad contains anchovies. Many people are shocked to hear that.
    I once attended a week-long workshop for Latin teachers. Those of us who liked to cook attempted a few Roman recipes.
    We substituted fish sauce from the Asian food aisle for garum. Since I was quite familiar with fish sauce, and happen to love the flavor, I happily cooked with it. Some of my colleagues were put off by it, and were quite put off when I slurped a spoonful of the fish sauce to show that I like it! They were surprised to find that they truly liked the finished dish. It works in much the way that adding a bit of vinegar to a dish as an acid brings out other flavors without overpowering the dish.
    I also introduced my high school students to the recipes. One of my students brought in a bottle of fish sauce from his parents’ Korean restaurant, which was quite excellent. The students were also amazed that the finished dish was so delicious.

  23. David Dobson says

    Nerd @24: are you sure your fish product will cure the problem?

    From the link you provided: “But it is actually very rare for soil to be lacking in calcium. Instead, there can be a number of other environmental causes of tomato blossom end rot, from uneven watering due to drought, heavy rainfall or an over caring gardener. Rapid plant growth, especially if given an overabundance of nitrogen early on, as well as fast climbing temperatures can contribute to blossom end rot in tomatoes and other susceptible fruits, like peppers, squashand eggplant. Blossom end rot occurs not because the soil lacks calcium but because the plant simply cannot take calcium out of the soil at a fast enough rate to keep up with the growth of the plant or because stress causes the plant to be unable to process the calcium the plant does take up.”

    Seems to me likely that you will need to look at your plants’ growing conditions, rather than a lack of Ca2+ in the dirt.

  24. jacksprocket says

    If the idea of hydrolysed fish protein in your sauce puts you off, you could try Henderson’s Relish, made in Yorkshire no less, which doesn’t include it. You could always add a pinch of MSG to get the umami. Downside is that it also contains authentic Yorkshire saccharine.

  25. says

    Vegan? That’s not Worcestershire Sauce, then. A crucial component has been omitted during a crucial part of the sauce-making. This puts it apart from even alcohol-free beer (blech!) which at least deserves the name because it was brewed as well as any similar beer and had alcohol removed afterwards. What you describe is just a few spices and molasses in a vinegar solution. It misses the central essence of WS entirely.

    Obviously, I meant that it’s a vegan version of the sauce, which naturally isn’t going to contain an animal ingredient. I didn’t describe it at all, but linked to the product description. You’ve evidently not tried it, so your uninformed opinions are unhelpful. It’s pretty good (a vegan version is/was used in the fingerling potatoes at Vedge in Philadelphia – delicious). I couldn’t care less about a food’s “central essence.” It’s interesting that in other contexts chefs who devise new versions of or twists on traditional foods are celebrated for their innovation and creativity, but when it comes to vegan alternatives people start talking about crucial components and essences.

  26. David Dobson says

    Salty Current @30: I have tried it (so idea where you got that I “evidently” haven’t), and it is as I described: not Worcestershire Sauce at all, just another seasoning sauce being, as I said, “just a few spices and molasses in a vinegar solution”. This is why it tastes so thin and nasty.

    This isn’t a hill I’m prepared to die defending, but this is clearly not WS. A critical component has been removed and – per the ingredients list available at your link – no replaced with anything.

    Vegan “WS”: Water, *Apple Cider Vinegar, *Molasses, *Soy Sauce (Water, *Soybean, Salt, *Wheat, *Alcohol), *Cane Sugar, *Tamarind, Sea Salt, *Cornstarch, Xanthan Gum, *Garlic, *Onion, *Clove, *Chili Pepper.

    Lean And Perrins genuine WS (UK) (from Wikipedia): Barley malt vinegar, Spirit vinegar, Molasses, Sugar, Salt, Anchovies, Tamarind extract, Onions, Garlic, Spice, Flavourings (The “flavourings” are believed to include soy sauce, lemons, pickles and peppers.[10])

  27. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Seems to me likely that you will need to look at your plants’ growing conditions, rather than a lack of Ca2+ in the dirt.

    Not one link. Why should believe your unsubstantiated word? I’m a skeptic. I don’t.

  28. David Dobson says

    Nerd @32

    Not one link. Why should believe your unsubstantiated word? I’m a skeptic. I don’t.

    Err…what? I was trying to help you, first of all.

    Second of all, I did not need to provide a link, as I was quoting directly from the link you yourself provided!!!!I guess I could have made it clearer in some way – big flashing lights and a klaxon, perhaps – but I just thought that using the phrase “From the link you provided:” would have been sufficient.

    Wow, what a douche attitude. Skeptic my ass, try reading for comprehension next time.