Thursday, March 01, 2012


You are probably familiar with one or other form of the salty, fishy condiment which is so intrinsic a part of the cuisine in many parts of Asia. I am not sure what it is about salty fermented fish, that humans seem to love, but they seem to have loved it since ancient times.

To the Romans, it was garum – but garum was forgotten (literally – there is no extant original recipe) by its subjects in Britain when the Roman Empire disintegrated. Salty, fishy sauce was rediscovered by the British centuries later as they expanded their own empire into Asia, albeit under several different names. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one version as balachong (balachaun, balichung,) and although the dictionary gives the origin of the word as Malay, it defines balachong as:

“A condiment for rice, much used in China, consisting of putrid shrimps or small fishes pounded up with salt and spices, and then dried.”

The first reference in English, according to the OED, is provided by our old friend, the explorer- adventurer William Dampier. In 1688 Dampier visited Tonquin (northern Vietnam), and an account of his travels was published in 1699. He says:

“Balachaun is a composition of a strong savor; yet a very delightsom dish to the Natives of this Country. To make it, they throw the Mixture of Shrimps and small Fish into a sort of weak Pickle made with Salt and Water, and put it into a tight earthen Vessel or Jar. The Pickle being thus weak, it keeps not the Fish firm and hard, neither is it probably so designed, for the Fish are never gutted. Therefore in a short time they turn all to a mash in the Vessel; and when they have lain thus a good while, so that the Fish is reduced to a pap, they then draw off the liquor into fresh Jars, and preserve it for use. The masht Fish, that remains behind, is called Balachaun, and the liquor pour’d off is Nuke-Mum. The poor people eat the Balachaun with their Rice. ‘Tis rank scented, yet the taste is not altogether unpleasant; but rather savory, after one is a little used to it. The Nuke-Mumis of a pale brown colour, inclining to grey, and pretty clear. It is also very savory, and used as a good sauce for Fowls, not only by the Natives, but also by many Europeans, who esteem it equal with Soy.”

I was most interested to find the following recipe in the staunchly Victorian and very popular Warne’s Everyday Cookery (London, 1872) by Mary Jewry.

One hundred prawns ; a little vinegar; two ounces of green ginger ; half an ounce of Chili; peel of four lemons; two ounces of salt; juice of two lemon; four onions; two or three ounces of butter. Boil a hundred prawns, take off the shells and clean them, then grind them in a currie stone with sufficient vinegar to keep the stone wet. Take one ounce of green ginger, half an ounce of Chili, and the peel of four lemons, pound them separately; then take two ounces of salt and the juice of two lemons, and mix all the ingredients with the prawns. Cut four onions in rings, and fry them with about two or three ounces of butter to keep them from burning. When the onions become soft and the ballachony dry, take it out and let it cool. To keep it any length of time, it must be put in jars with orange leaves on the top, and closed up with bladder.

Quotation for the Day.

Poor Britons, there is some good in them after all - they produced an oyster.
            Sallust (86BC-35BC), Roman historian, apparently referring to the oysters in East Anglia.


Les said...

I was looking for an authentic garum recipe a few years ago and came across the recipe for garum or liquamen (medieval fish sauce)at

I don't think I have the guts, literally or figuratively, to try it but it was interesting. A fish sauce called colatura di alici is still made in Italy but I don't think it contains the herbs present in the original Roman recipe.

Shay said...

I'm guessing that the currie stone was the one used for strong-flavored herbs and spices?

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Les. This is marvellous, thanks!

Hi Shay - the next post (on Friday) answered you, I think. it looks like the stone was used to grind all the hard seeds to a powder -I dont think the soft herbs though.

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

I made garum in the backyard last summer and autumn and it was easy, not at all smelly. The results were also delicious.

15 pounds of fresh mackerel and 12 pounds of sea salt - and a lot of patience.

I discuss the project on the Silk Road Gourmet site:

My research has also shown that garum is a Carthaginian condiment that the Romans adopted. They took over the Carthaginian production business after conquest as well.

Laura Kelley,
The Silk Road Gourmet