Funky Fish Guts Were the Ketchup of Ancient Rome

A network of factories and trade routes sprang up to feed Rome’s insatiable appetite for garum, a singularly smelly relish.

What would be on the menu for a banquet at the home of a rich Roman at the end of the first century A.D.? A dozen guests reclining on couches would wait for slaves to carry laden dishes to the table. What would they serve? To start, there might be pork with garum, followed by fish with garum, and to wash it down: wine with . . . yes, garum!

So what was this essential sauce that enhanced so many Roman dishes? Today’s closest equivalent to garum is probably fish sauce, a liquid mix of fermented fish and salt, which is now a staple in many Southeast Asian cuisines. Like modern fish sauce, Roman garum was also made from fermented fish—the guts specifically—and salt. It was used in recipes to enhance flavor. Romans cooked with it either as a straight flavoring or by combining it with other ingredients, such as pepper (garum piperatum), vinegar (oxygarum), wine (oenogarum), oil (oleagarum), or even drinking water (hydrogarum).

This condiment became so essential to the ancient Roman palate that a huge network of trade routes grew up to move the prized relish from fishery to plate. Like many delicacies today, the finest garum could sell for astronomical sums.

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