Garos / Garum: the ketchup of the ancient world

During our Bouchercon panel, Lindsey Davis referred to a popular ancient fish sauce called garum, and I quickly pointed out it was invented by the Greeks, who called it garos. I've been asked about it so many times since that I thought I'd repost a slightly edited version of an article I wrote in November 2008.

The Greeks had a salty fish sauce called garos (γαροσ). It was incredibly popular in both Greece and (much later) Rome, where people would add it to almost anything. It was, in effect, the ketchup of the ancient world. (Nico's favorite food is eel in garos sauce.)

Since there was a fish called garos, or garon, in Greek, it's a fair bet the sauce was made mostly from that. I've been unable to discover what fish garos actually was. Not to worry, I can fudge it in my stories (but don't let Keith and Kathleen know that...I'll tell them I'm using the Greek word for authentic atmosphere).

The earliest references of which I'm aware are some lines in Aeschylus (fragments of the lost play Proteus) and Sophocles (fragments of the lost play Triptolemos), both of which refer to garos as stinking. Not a great advertisement, but the sauce was obviously popular enough that writers were referring to it and expecting everyone to understand. Since they were writing at the same time Nicolaos and Diotima are solving murders, I know I'm on solid ground using the sauce.

The stink is understandable. Although later Roman garum was made from carefully chosen gourmet fish, the original Greek version was made from leftover entrails.

Gary's theory, for what it's worth, is this: over-population was chronic in classical Greece, and children, especially small girls who were last in the feeding line, regularly went to bed hungry. Nothing that was even remotely edible was ever wasted. So when fishwives gutted the morning catch, they would have discarded the entrails into the large vats where some extra seawater would have been added, and the whole goopy mess allowed to ferment in the sun over weeks or months into garos. If this theory is correct then garos-the-fish is going to be whatever the main catch was.

When the Romans picked up the sauce from the Greeks, the ingredients and the name changed slightly. Garum isn't Latin. It's latinized Greek. Garum was made from whole fish, not only the offal. The Romans got very precious about the whole thing and would debate which species made the best sauce. Martial even talks about making it from, "mackerel still breathing its last." Later on, humble garum split into a range of gourmet sauces, each with their own names. Liquamen appears to be the original garum, and there was also allec, muria, and a pile of others. I haven't chased down any of these because by then, my characters are all shades in Hades.

Under Roman law it was illegal to make garum at home, the stench was that bad, so they had garum factories by the coast. The Greeks had no such rule, but practicality indicates garos would not have been made in Athens anyway, but Piraeus, the port town down the road, where the fisherman brought in their catch and the fishwives processed the fish. The garos would have been transported up to Athens in amphorae and sold in the Agora.


Sarah W said...

Under Roman law it was illegal to make garum at home, the stench was that bad

I wish there had been this kind of law regarding my Grandma's homemade sauerkraut!

Great post---culinary history is fascinating.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Sarah! There isn't much, but there are a few books around written about ancient food. I'm in a hotel far from my office library, but later if it's interesting I'll see if I can dredge up a few.

Narukami said...

I have heard garum compared to our own Worcestershire Sauce, and that is probably not a bad comparison, at least as far as how it is used, if not the "sweet aroma" of it.

For that we might think more in terms of Korean kimchee (or Kimchi). I remember, while serving in Korea with the 2nd ID, the ever present smell of kimchee on practically everyone's breath. Try as they might, the Koreans could never hide it.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Narukami,

The Worcestershire comparison is very common, but alas I don't think it can be true. The Greeks are known to have disliked anchovies. Also Worcestershire includes molasses, chilies and sugar, none of which the Greeks had.

I'm totally with you on the kimchee. Unmistakable stuff. I've seen it written that the closest modern equivalent to garos is the Asian sauce called naum pla, but I have no idea if it's true.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I have also heard garum compared to Thai fish sauce. Either way, you gotta wonder whether the strong-smelling stuff was also used to cover-up the maybe no-so-fresh smell from days-old meat, cheese or veggies. [shudders]

Gary Corby said...

Very likely, I should think, Vicky. Apparently that's how Indian curries started too.

Loretta Ross said...

I've got a great idea! You guys should collaborate on a diet book. The Ancient World's Secret to Staying Thin. Read one chapter before meals and you'll never overeat again.

(grossed out and rethinking that slice of pie) ;)

Gary Corby said...

It's not much different to blood sausage or haggis!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Tasty title on this post. You bring the smells of the ancient world alive to modern audiences.

You may remember my saying that garum sticks in my mind because of a story Lindsey Davis wrote about it. I believe it involved bogus garum and perhaps the theft of a recipe as well.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Gary Corby said...

Hi Peter.

I recall her using garum in a recipe which Falco cooks, though I think she called it fish pickle sauce and not by the Roman name. I don't recall it as central to a plot, unless it appears in a short story I haven't come across? Or maybe my memory is poor. I must look into this.

L. T. Host said...

There you go, bringing up blood sausage again...

One of the big cultural/ historical things that's always fascinating to me is how differently we perceive food. Such a big difference between fish entrail sauce and ketchup, and yet maybe ~2,500 years in the future, people won't believe we salted and cured tomato puree and ate it on food.

C. N. Nevets said...

haha I agree that whatever foods we eat will seem strange in the future, but I think there's difference between, "Oh, what a funny thing they did with those vegetables," and "Um, they did what with animal entrails?"

Considering there's an overarching trend of using fewer parts of animals in our cooking, but mainly stylistic shifts in the use of salt and vegetables.

Amalia T. said...

I wonder if a Garos/Garum sandwich would taste better than a ketchup sandwich. It seems like it would go well with bread-- not that it really sounds all that appetizing in general.

Gary Corby said...

LT, it was the conversation in the car that made me think of mentioning blood sausage here! But yes, it's still all my fault.

Amalia, I'm fairly sure there are surviving Roman recipes, which would be much more staid than the Greek original, but even so you could have a go at making garum and let us know what it tastes like.

Nevets, I ave a feeling if we wandered through street stalls in most South East Asian cities, we'd discover the tendency to use fewer animal parts is purely first world. I recall a recipe once in Gourmet Traveler for pig snouts.