The people of Southern Italy and Southern Asia may be far apart, geographically, but when it comes to fermented fish, they have a lot in common. Both Thai cooks and ancient Roman chefs relied on a certain salty, powerfully fishy liquid dredged off fermenting anchovies. They added this to dishes for savor and umami. The Thai call it fish sauce (nam pla); the ancient Romans called it garum. And it's still around, more or less.
Have you heard of garum, the ancient Roman fish sauce, made from what seeped out of the barrels of fermenting anchovies and other fish? It's still made today, although it probably isn't as pungent. It is sold in little glass vials, sometimes under the label anchovy extract or syrup, whose instructions advise you to toss it with pasta, garlic, red pepper, and olive oil.
I had been hearing a lot about colatura, and I was dying to try it. I picked up a little bottle at Zingerman's, and dashed it over pasta. Delicious! It does indeed have a fishy smell, but when you spread a tablespoon or two through a whole batch of pasta it just gives it an elusive savory, briny flavor, which complements summer basil and tomatoes, or simple garlic, in a beautifully wild and addictive set of flavors. I am hoarding the rest of the bottle, saving it for the best pastas and simple dinners at home.
Obviously this isn't a vegetarian product, but if you are simply trying to eat less meat, or use meat more for flavor than for substance, this would be a fantastic addition to your cupboard.
Its rather shocking price, though, has made me wonder about using just straight up fish sauce in pasta. Anyone tried this?
• Read more: Essence of Anchovy From the Amalfi Coast, by Melissa Clark - An excellent introduction to garum and its modern equivalent.
• Find it: Garum Colatura, $17 at Zingerman's
Related: Ingredient Spotlight: Fish Sauce
(Images: Faith Durand)