Friday, May 1, 2015

Liquamen -- Fish Sauce from the Roman Empire

In 2007 I was fortunate enough to travel to England; in particular I got to visit Vindolanda and Bath, both sites that were influenced by the Roman Empire about 2000 years ago.  At one of their museum stores (I can't recall which!), I purchased -- what else? -- a cookbook!

Not just any cookbook, though.  It was Cooking Apicius, Roman Recipes for Today by Sally Grainger.

ISBN 1-903018-44-7
Ms. Grainger is a researcher interested in experimental archaeology, food history, and food in antiquity.  I have seen references before to Apicius, "a collection of Roman cookery recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD." (  The problem I had with it was most of the references were to recipes we would consider very strange, like cooked dormice.  It was almost enough to make me believe the Romans ate nothing but weird (to us) food, however I know that old cookbooks often give us recipes that were for feasts or other special gatherings.  Thus the food tends to be exotic.

Ms. Grainger has, in my humble opinion, focused on reasonable recipes:  ones where we can easily find or make the ingredients.  When I read them over I get excited rather than revolted about making them.

In the Introduction, she discusses "fish sauce" as a fundamental ingredient to Roman food.  There are various types, depending on how they are prepared.  I focused on liquamen:
This was made by dissolving whole small fish, as well as larger pieces of gutted fish, ... into a liquor with salt.  The fish, often anchovy, were layered with salt in a barrel or pit and left for anything up to four months.  The whole mixture cleared from the top and settled into layers.  The paste at the bottom was called allec and was used as a pickle in its own right.  The liquor was called liquamen.
(If you would like to learn more about the different fish sauces, read her paper here.)

Fortunately she gives us a recipe that does not require us to buy fish or to wait four months.

Adapted fish sauce  (page 29)

1 liter carton white grape juice
1 bottle "Oyster brand" fish sauce or a pale variety of fish sauce

Note the color of the grape juice
Tip the grape juice into a large saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.  Cook at the lowest setting for however long it takes to reduce by half.  This is never set in stone as grape juice can have a higher or lower sugar content.  Cool and store.  

You can use this for other recipes in Apicius as well as for your fish sauce.  The ratio that works for me is two-thirds fish sauce to one-third grape syrup.  This produces a blend that is neither too salty, nor has it lost too much of the cheesy/meaty elements that you need.  

You might find that you need to adjust this ratio depending on the type of fish sauce that you have.  The darker varieties tend to be saltier but unfortunately this is not always the case!  You might try half and half to achieve the correct blend.  Experiment!  The initial cost is low and well worth the effort in the long run.

My Notes

It took several hours to reduce the grape juice to half its original volume.  The first hour was spent trying out different heat levels:  I wanted to reduce it quickly but not boil or burn it.  The lowest setting wasn't enough to produce any visible evaporation so I bumped it up to just below a simmer.  I would not recommend this as a project to start in the evening when you need to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

Once it was at half volume (I measured it!), I poured it in a heat-proof container and put it in the refrigerator.

Now a beautiful golden color
The fish sauce I had already was not even close to being pale.  I just decided to hope I could find the right blend as Ms. Grainger suggests.


First my guest taster and I tried the fish sauce by itself.  This gave us an idea of how salty it was as well as the "cheesy/meaty" flavor it had.  My taste buds said, "too strong, too salty, and a very fishy aftertaste."  My guest taster said the same thing and he loves anchovies on his Caesar salads (I don't).

We also tried the reduced grape juice by itself.  It was a pleasant, grapy flavor.  As he said, "What's not to like?"

Then we started tasting different ratios of fish sauce to juice.  I used a teaspoon measure, a separate spoon for each liquid, put the liquids in a little bowl, and stirred them to mix.  Between samples we cleansed our palates with water crackers and plain water.  Here are our results:

1 part fish sauce to 1 part grape juice:  Too fishy!  I found that the salt was almost burning my mouth.

1 part fish to 2 parts grape:  Still too salty.  The fish was overwhelming the grape.

1 part to 3 parts:  Better.  We could still taste the fish but started tasting the grape.  It was more balanced but still not good.

1 part to 4:  Starting to like it.  Getting to a balance.

1 to 5:  Still too salty but finally not too fishy or grapy.

1 to 6:  Seems just right!

1 to 7:  Very good.  Less salty than 1:6 and we liked it better.

1 to 8:  Too grapy.  Not enough fishy/umami flavor.

The Verdict

We decided that for the very dark and strong-flavored fish sauce I had, the best combination was 1 part fish sauce to 7 parts grape juice.  It was good enough that after tasting a spoonful, we actually wanted to taste more. Success!

Since liquamen is mostly an ingredient to recipes and the reduced grape juice can be used alone or mixed with other items, I did not turn the juice into a big batch of liquamen.  I kept the two liquids separate but with the ratio marked on them so I could mix up what I needed when I needed it.

Now I have to decide which of Ms. Grainger's mouthwatering recipes I want to try using the liquamen!

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