Making the Perfect Fish Sauce Is a Science, Not an Art
Chef Stevie Parle of modern British restaurant, Craft London, has revived a 3,000-year-old recipe for garum—the aged fish guts ketchup first made by Romans.
This story was originally published on MUNCHIES UK on September 7.
"That savoury, fishy, rotten taste—I'm into it. The taste of rotten guts is good for me so I wanted to make that in an interesting way."
It's not the way your average cooking lesson starts. But then Stevie Parle is not your average chef.
As we walk through the maze of rooms comprising the kitchens at Craft London, Parle's modern British restaurant in the South East of the capital, he points out curing cupboards with homemade charcuterie, rows of jars with various pickled items, and in the distance beyond the restaurant, a set of beehives.
"We experiment a lot with making products and a lot of the work that goes into the food here is on the product, rather than the cooking," Parle tells me. "We cure meat (which is a very complicated thing to do) and then just slice it and serve it (which is a very simple thing to do). We also make butter, which takes ages but it's just butter."
As he give me a spoonful of beech wood-infused apple cider vinegar to try (an inspired idea from the guy he knows at the smokehouse), Parle suddenly remembers the reason why I'm here.
"But you're here to make garum—let's go."
He leads me back into Craft's main kitchen to reveal the secrets of garum-making—a fermented fish sauce that dates back to Roman times. It's a simple recipe with just four ingredients: fish guts, barley, salt, and water.
I ask Parle how he came to make what he describes as "essentially a 3,000-year-old ketchup."
"I experimented with a few recipes, like using the juice that comes off fish when you salt it," says Parle. "But it's René Redzepi's, or his lab's, way of making garum that I kind off ripped off to use enzymes rather than bacteria to make it. So, we don't ferment it, we age it at a high temperature."
This is where the science lesson starts. Parle begins by showing me a bowl of barley grains.
"The barley is inoculated and treated with aspergillus [a type of mold] so it'll grow on the grains and make enzymes that will be added to the fish, salt, and water mixture," explains Parle. "But when we store it at 60 degrees, the actual aspergillus dies but the protein- and starch-eating enzymes survive to create the amazingly deep, rich, wonderful liquid."
Next up: those guts.
Parle tells me that the garum he's making today is using squid, but Craft also uses cuttlefish and mackerel.
Sifting the grey-ish mush through the barley with his hands, he says: "You just mince everything up—any trim of the fish, all the guts, the eyes, the ink, the weird tentacles … "
"A lot of our focus is using stuff that you'd normally put in the bin and making this, we have all the ingredients to hand already," Parle continues. "Salt and water we obviously have, and we had the koji (the aspergillus-coated barley) because we make miso here."
Salt and water are added and everything is poured into a preserving jar. Making the garum takes Parle a few minutes but it'll be another ten weeks in a cabinet—temperature-controlled at 60 degrees—until this batch is ready to use.
So, why not just buy in the stuff?
Parle's explanation for his obsession with making everything is simple: "I don't really like using stuff when I really don't know what it is or where it's come from. I wouldn't have any connection to the product if I bought it."
He continues: "Also, our garum is better than fish sauce. It's more complex and a hugely umami-rich seasoning for meat or veg like nothing else. You can put a splash in butter which you could serve with steak. Tonight, we've got a sort of tartare on the menu and we're going to make an emulsion sauce with the garum. In my head, there's a garum and tofu thing that's going to happen."
I never thought my mouth would be watering at the thought of fish innards and luckily, Parle has a Blue Peter-style "here's one I made ten weeks earlier" bowl of squid and cuttlefish garum ready for me to try.
As I bring the spoon to my mouth, Parle tells me that the restaurant regularly sends samples of its garum to a lab to check that it's safe to eat—what with all that funky enzyme/bacteria stuff going on.
"It's always fine and usually I've tasted it first anyway!" he assures me.
I sip the brown liquid and hope for the best.
The garum is overwhelmingly salty with a strong flavour akin to anchovy and olive that stays on my palate long after I've swallowed. I say I'm surprised it smells only very mildly fishy.
Parle laughs: "When it's been in the cabinet a while, it gets pretty stinky. But the smell kind of peaks and then troughs and mellows out."
Garum isn't something I would suggest drinking straight but when Parle brings out a piece of cod that has been finished with a drizzle of it, the sauce comes into its own. It acts as a perfect seasoning to the fish, adding a subtle, salty flavour without overpowering the delicate cod. I polish off the plate in an embarrassingly short amount of time.
Who knew fish guts could taste so good?
All photos by Jamie Drew.