Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The origin of fish sauce

Fish sauce is a well-known condiment in the cuisines of Vietnam, where it is known as nuoc mam, and Thailand, where it is called nam pla. It also turns up as a key flavouring in the Philippines (patis), Burma (ngan bya), Northern Malaysia (budu), Cambodia (teuk trei) Korea (jeotgal), and Japan (ishiru and shottsuru). Laos also has a chunkier variation called padaek. Fish sauce plays a vital role (particularly in SE Asia) in adding an umami (savoury) element to the flavour of food. It was once a common ingredient in China as well; indeed, there is a theory that the English word ketchup is ultimately derived from a Chinese term, ke-chiap, referring to a kind of fish sauce.

But while it is such a quintessentially Asian ingredient, you might be surprised that the Romans were using fish sauce far earlier. Not exactly the same thing, mind, but something eerily similar. Garum (and a similar product called liquamen) was a flavouring liquid made from fish innards and salt, left to ferment in vats. In fact it was originally an invention of either the Greeks or the Carthaginians, and it entered the Roman culinary pantheon when Rome conquered and/or traded with those regions.

Around 2000 years ago there was a thriving garum industry from the Iberian Peninsula to the Black Sea. But with decline of the Roman Empire also saw a decline in the use and production of garum, until it became virtually unknown in its former range. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Italian food knows that fish sauce is hardly a typical ingredient in La Cucina Italia. It did not totally die out, however, as several monasteries preserved the knowledge and continued making a kind of fish sauce, today known as colatura de alici, from Amalfi in the region of Campagnia. Colatura de alici is made from anchovies, as are most varieties of Asian fish sauce. Garum, however, utilised a wide variety of seasonally available fish, although anchovies were indeed a common component.

There appears to be no historical mention of fish sauce being used in Asia before the Early Middle Ages in Europe, which oddly enough is around the same time its use was dwindling in the remnants of the Roman Empire.

Laura Kelley of The Silk Road Gourmet contends in a recent interesting blog post that fish sauce passed from Europe to Asia along trade routes. This is quite certainly possible, as many other items passed back and forth between East and West long before Marco Polo's time. Remember that at one time Rome controlled land as far east as what is now Turkey - situated at one end of the Silk Road that led all the way to Chang'an in China. Wealthy Romans' diet revolved very heavily around spices, which meant that the likes of cinnamon (from Sri Lanka) and Nutmeg (from Indonesia) were highly prized commodities (often acquired through middle-men such as the Arabs. Silk, obviously, was traded and exchanged as gifts between China and Rome. So clearly there was some opportunity for a product such as garum to pass from the shores of the Black Sea to the South China Sea.

I'm somewhat sceptical of this though. I have little doubt that it was the Mediterranean that gave rise to the first fish sauce. However, I'm inclined to think that it was invented independently in two places, either in China or a neighbouring nation.

I have a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, by the time fish sauce is proven to be in use in Asia, its use around the Mediterranean seems to have already declined substantially. Would an increasingly marginalised product really have made it to Asia and spread so comprehensively throughout the region? It's certainly possible; we have no way of knowing exactly when fish sauce was first used in Asia, and during the era when it was the principal flavouring ingredient of the Roman Empire, it would make sense to send it eastwards as a trade or gift item. But for this to happen, it would have presumably arrived in Northern China, spread to Korea and Southeast Asia within the next 1000 years, but then faded from use in China itself. I'm just not sure if all that is more believable than an independent East Asian origin.

But primarily, it occurs to me that not only are many of the cuisines around Asia are heavily based around seafood, but fish sauce is only one of a number of seafood-based condiments employed in Asia to add that umami taste.

Sri Lanka has its indispensable "Maldive fish", dried fish (usually tuna) pounded into tiny splinters which is then added to all kinds of dishes. Similarly, the cuisine of Japan makes extensive use of dried bonito flakes, which go into the dashi (stock) which flavours virtually every Japanese dish with a hint of liquid. Malay cuisine is well-known for its extensive use of pungent shrimp paste, or blachan; this product is also commonly used in Thailand and Laos (where it is known as kapi), the Philippines (bagoong), Burma (ngapi), and Indonesia (terasi). One of the most distinctive flavours of Cambodian cookery is the fermented mudfish paste known as prahok. Tiny dried anchovies (ikan bilis) are an extremely common flavouring ingredient in Indonesian and Malay cooking as well.

So given the ubiquity of these seafood products as flavouring agents, I think it's only natural that fish sauce would have arisen independently somewhere in East Asia. Fish sauce is a logical way to use the abundant small fish that are caught in regions that rely heavily on fishing. And it's not so unusual for almost identical culinary ideas to arise in different regions with no relationship to each other. The chickpea flour pancake of southern France and Italy (socca or farinata) is uncannily like the pudla of Gujarat in India, yet no country in between those two regions seems to make use of this idea. Returning to seafood-based condiments, West Africa has its own as well, with cooks in places like Senegal and Ghana using powdered shrimps and marine molluscs to impart savoury flavours to their dishes.

I'm not sure if the truth will ever be known on this. In any case, it's somewhat amusing to reflect that the diets of a Roman Senator and a farmer in Vietnam would have shared an ingredient that both would consider indispensable.


  1. Hi ES:

    I like your journalistic treatment of the subject! Much better than my dry, academic approach.

    I still disagree (in a gentlemanly way, even tho' I am woman) about the independent invention of fish sauce in the East, but that's OK.

    The time for Iberian production by the Phonecians keeps on getting older. Recently found an article claiming settlement on the peninsula and production as early as 1200 BCE.

    BTW, chickpea flour is used in N. Africa and in some Levantine cuisines if that is "in-between" enough for you. I believe it entered Europe via Gibraltar and Spain.

    Anyway, thanks for the trackback. Will do the same next time I work on my site.



  2. @ Laura:
    No problem, there is always room in this world for gentlewomanly disagreement.
    And thanks for your blog post which inspired me to leave a comment which became this blog post!

    1. its interesting how you put things together, i guess food is somewhat a universal language.

      i got to this site while searching for asian foodstuff. but i'll just share my thoughts anyways. the fish sauce of vietnam, the philippines and thailand are not really related to the western fish sauce (the greek one).

      the viet, pinoy and thai fish sauce are made from fermented fish or dried fish. the preparation of this type of fish sauce (patis) was accidentally discovered in the philippines and was later carried out to nearby ASEAN countries.

      patis is a by-product of fish-based bagoong production - when the process takes longer (usually 6 months). i'm referring to the commercial fish sauce produced in the 3 countries.

    2. Potteries used specifically for fish fermentation 6000 years ago was discovered in northeastern Thailand called Ban Chiang.

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