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Fish sauce — that funky, flavor-enhancing fermented condiment — is part of what gives Southeast Asian cooking its distinctive taste. But it turns out, this cornerstone of Eastern cooking actually has a long history on another continent: Europe. And it goes all the way back to the Roman Empire.

Like Asian fish sauces, the Roman version was made by layering fish and salt until it ferments. There are versions made with whole fish, and some with just the blood and guts. Some food historians argue that "garum" referred to one version, and "liquamen" another, while others maintain different terms were popular in different times and places. The current convention is to use garum as a common term for all ancient fish sauces.

Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino studies the early roots of garum, the Roman version of fish sauce. He cites mention of garum in Roman literature from the 3rd and 4th century B.C., and remains of factories producing garum even earlier. The fish bones remaining at a garum factory in Pompeii even led to a more precise dating of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Giardino notes that garum was popular throughout the Roman Empire.

"According [to] the Roman writers, a good bottle of garum could cost something like $500 of today," he says. "But you can also have garum for slaves that is extremely cheap. So it is exactly like wine."

Remains of garum factories have been excavated from Spain to Portugal to northern Africa. Some of these factories appear to have employed upwards of 50 people.

And this fish sauce became an integral part of Roman cuisine. Food historian Sally Grainger has recreated recipes from antiquity that used garum both as a general salt substitute and as the basis of dips and sauces. "After the fish sauce is made, it was then turned into compound sauces — with honey, with wine, with vinegar, with other herbs, with oil."

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