"Could I have some fermented fish guts with my meal?" – That's not something you think you'd hear at the dinner table very often but it's exactly what people have been asking for, perhaps even your family!

Fish -- a surprising flavoring
Credit: Thoursie

Fermented Fish In Roman Times

Fermented fish guts have been a go-to meal flavoring for thousands of years. During the Roman era, more than two thousand years ago, small fish would be packed with salt and left to ferment in the sun for up to 3 months. (As you can imagine, the smell was famously bad and writers of the day, including Seneca and Plato Comicus both wrote about the stench).

The resulting liquid, called garum, was used by people of all levels of society as a way to add flavor to their food. It was featured in cookbooks of the day and used in a multitude of ways during each meal. The rich served high quality garum with their meals. The poor used lower quality garum (and even the slurry of left over fish guts after the garum was removed) to flavor their simple dishes. It was even added to wine to make a drink.

Garum flavored food to make the limited (and sometimes bland) menu a little more flavorful, and doubtlessly it made hard food softer and easier to chew in an age when dental hygiene was unknown.

Garum was a trusted stable in ancient times and most houses would have some form of this liquid from fermented fish guts.

Fermented Fish In Asia

The Asian region has its own version of this sauce. Each country has its own name for the sauce and the exact recipe varies by region, but this sauce has been used in a similar way and its use stretches back into antiquity. The fish were added to salt brine, and other seasonings may be added in different regions of the area.

The resulting liquid, which today can be found as "fish sauce" in the Asian aisle of most major grocery stores, is used during cooking and at the table to flavor food, in much the same way that garum was used in Roman times.

Don't Turn Your Nose Up Just Yet

If the idea of using fermented fish guts on your food is disgusting to you, think again. Garum may no longer be produced by that name and some people might walk quickly past the shelves of fish sauce at the grocery store because they are repulsed by the name. However, the world over enjoys a popular type of fish sauce under the brand Worchestershire Sauce.

Produced by Lea and Perrins in England, Worchestershire Sauce is made from a secret mix of ingredients that includes – you guessed it – fish soaked in brine… Specifically, anchovies.
Even people who are repulsed at the idea of fermented fish guts, a bottle of fish sauce, and would never eat anchovies, still love Worchestershire Sauce and happily add it as flavoring to their food.

So, whether you want to eat like the Romans ate, or you're a lover of Asian cuisine, or you have a beloved bottle of Lea & Perrins Worchestershire Sauce on the table or near the stove, you join a long line of food lovers who happily cry out at each meal, "pass the fermented fish guts, please!"