It always amazes me to see how little the food we eat nowadays has to do with what we ate in ancient times. Maybe you are familiar with a pungent condiment named fish sauce. It’s a seasoning sauce that is today mainly used in Southeast Asian countries.
It’s made by fermenting salted anchovies and smells absurdly bad. However, it adds a great depth of flavor to just about any savory dish. It’s a natural alternative to the infamous Maggi seasoning sauce. Fish sauce doesn’t necessarily make food taste fishy because you usually only use small amounts of it.
You might wonder why I’m telling you about a Southeast Asian condiment. Overall, the Romans during ancient times certainly didn’t import Southeast Asian fish sauce to season their food. It’s known that they’ve been lovers of well-seasoned food. However, the spices and condiments they used were for the most part locally produced.
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Fish sauce isn’t as foreign to Western cuisine as you might think
Interestingly, the most popular seasoning of the Romans was a sauce called garum. It’s a fermented fish sauce that is very similar to the one used in Southeast Asian cooking today. Until the late middle ages, it remained a popular seasoning all across the Mediterranean area.
The biggest Roman production plants of garum have been found in Southern Spain and Northern Africa. Because of the horrifying smell of fermenting fish, they were usually situated far outside the city centers. Garum used to be as ubiquitous in European cuisine as fish sauce is in Vietnamese or Thai cuisine today.
But it was not just used to season food. It was also widely used as a medicine for dog bites, ulcerous, chronic diarrhea and constipation. Moreover, some even used the fish sauce for cosmetic reasons to remove unwanted hairs and freckles.
It’s still a mystery why garum disappeared from Western cuisine. Historians link its disappearance to the collapse of the Roman empire, pirate attacks on coastal cities with garum factories, and the introduction of taxes on salt.
Meet the successor of garum
And even though garum isn’t an essential part of Western cuisine today, its legacy is still alive. It might sound obscure at first but Ketchup is basically the modern version of garum. Ketchup wasn’t always overly sweet, thick, and tomato-based. That’s the American interpretation of it that became today’s standard formulation for this popular condiment.
Ketchup and garum were solutions to preserve small fish from going bad. While garum is a European invention, the word ketchup can be traced back to China. The word Ketchup is derived from the Amoy-Chinese word kê-tsiap which literally translates to “the brine of pickled fish”.
The Chinese were introduced by the Northern Vietnamese to fish sauce. In Vietnam, fish sauce was even more ubiquitous than garum in Rome. The reason for that is that Vietnamese fish sauce, in general, was lower in price and quality than the one produced in ancient Europe and Northern Africa.
Asian fish sauces were made with up to 50 % salt while the ancient Romans only used about 15 % salt. The product quality of the Roman garum was exceptional even by today’s standards. A good bottle of garum would cost something like $500 in today’s currency.
How Ketchup made its way to Europe
The British first came into contact with Asian ketchup in what is nowadays Indonesia. Ketchup in Indonesia was a loosely defined term describing sauces that were made by fermenting soybeans or fish. The British soon developed a taste for it and created their own recipe which was quite different from the Indonesian sauces.
The first published English-language recipe for ketchup dates back to the year 1727. It included:
- brined anchovies
- white wine vinegar
- white wine
- spices (mace, ginger, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, lemon peel, and horseradish)
By the mid-nineteenth century, tomato ketchup started to gain popularity. The tomatoes were still fermented to increase shelf-life but over time anchovies were omitted as an ingredient.
How America invented the product we call tomato ketchup today
It was American people who first started to add sugar to tomato ketchup. What they quickly found out was that sugar accelerated the fermentation of ketchup and made the end product even sourer than it already was. I mean, who could’ve thought of that? Isn’t it the French who add sugar to their cream to make crème fraîche more acidic?
The solution to this problem was simple: Just produce unfermented ketchup. To make such a product shelf-stable, the sugar and vinegar content were drastically increased. Ketchup as we know it today was born. It gained popularity very quickly because American consumers not only preferred its sweeter taste but also its thick consistency.
At first, the Europeans didn’t go crazy for American-style tomato ketchup. Until World War II, traditional ketchup without tomato remained the preferred condiment of European cooks. It was mostly prepared at home.
The rapid rise of American-style ketchup
The strong American influence on Western Europe after World War II and the industrialization of food production led to the rise of American-style tomato ketchup in Germany and other Western European countries. Until today, Heinz tomato ketchup remains the market leader in Germany.
And as much as I admire Heinz for their success in commercializing a truly American food product, I do think it is a pity that European-style ketchup wasn’t produced on an industrial scale to compete with its American counterpart. But I guess Europe had some other problems to deal with during the years of war and poverty than commercializing ketchup on a large scale.
Eastern Europe, which was under the influence of Russia, still has some ketchup like products which use bell pepper as a flavor base. Examples for this are ayvar and ljutenica which are popular in the Balkan countries. However, anchovy based ketchup has almost died out. I think the product that resembles traditional European fish sauce the closest nowadays is Worcestershire sauce.
Why is it that tomato ketchup became the only choice in the Western world?
Many manufacturers prefer it to produce milder products with a bland taste because they are easier to sell. The European palate has evolved to dismiss a lot of stronger and funkier flavors as unpalatable. Why that is: I have no idea!
The only thing I can tell you is that fermented sauces are on the rise again in Europe. A lot of people rediscover what has been lost through ethnic food. It’s just a shame that we have to import these products from far away because we failed to commercialize a product that was a common home cooking condiment. And all of that, just because industry leaders saw a greater market potential for an uninspired sugary-sweet tomato sauce.
There are still artisans who produce garum on a small-scale in the Mediterranean countries. They don’t have the capacity to supply all of Europe with high-quality fish sauce. Their prices aren’t competitive on a mass-market because a small 100 mL bottle of garum can easily cost you $25. But in terms of quality, nowhere in this world will you find a more fragrant fish sauce.