Tuesday, December 26, 2006

An Unconventional Use for Fish Sauce

Whether it's called nam pla (in Thailand) or nước mắm (in Vietnam), fish sauce is one big condiment in Southeast Asia. In the US, it's primarily found in restaurants sweetened with little julienned strips of carrots, maybe pepper flakes, and the occasional small slices of green onion. I have been using it for years, though admittedly not often. When I'm not cooking Vietnamese or Thai food, I get some extra use from it in recipes that I get from The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger. This book adapts ancient Roman recipes for the modern day, as faithfully as possible - and these recipes all come from a time long before pasta, tomatoes or potatoes were ever introduced into Italy.

So the next question on your mind might be: how authentically Roman is Southeast Asian fish sauce? Turns out that scholars had been scratching their heads trying to recreate the ancient process for making garum, a fermented fish gut product that was used in Rome as often as ketchup is here. Long story short: nothing the culinary archaeologists did worked, but it hit them that garum and Thai / Vietnamese fish sauce were actually made in much the same way (though, disturbingly, Thai / Vietnamese fish sauce, according to the above link, is probably not as strong as garum, because they don't throw in the guts of just any fish into the mixture in Southeast Asia; the Romans would just throw in guts from any fish). Why recreate garum when it's being made in Thailand, Vietnam and the Phillippines?

The recipe I use most often is adapted from one for mushrooms. Just bring equal parts of olive oil, honey and fish sauce to a boil, add lovage or celery leaves, and throw in sliced up mushrooms - about 1 to 2 cups of the sauce per pound of mushroom, depending on how much of the sauce you really like (I like more). This recipe works very well with portabello mushrooms.