Did Fish Sauce in Vietnam Come from Ancient Rome Via the Silk Road?

Silvia Marchetti wrote . . . . . . . . .

A wide variety of fish sauces and condiments can be found throughout Asia, adapted to local cooking traditions. According to experts, they are intriguingly similar to an ancient Roman dressing known as garum.

One in particular, Vietnam’s iconic nuoc mam – made with fermented fish, usually anchovies, and salt – bears a resemblance in taste, composition and texture to the garum fish sauce first produced around 100BC, according to food historian Giorgio Franchetti.

He is a scholar of ancient Roman history and the author of the book Dining with the Ancient Romans, which was recently translated into English.

“Vietnam’s nuoc mam can be described as a ‘living fossil’ or ‘living archaeological culinary finding’ that maintains the ancient Roman tradition and flavour,” Franchetti says. “Recent studies have shown that nuoc mam is today the closest existing sauce to the garum of an earlier age.”

Other similar Asian fish sauces include Cambodia’s prahok, the Philippines’ patis, Thailand’s nam pla and Japan’s gyosho, says Franchetti, who notes a Roman connection can also be found in the Indonesian word for salt, “garam”, given that garum was used by the Romans as a substitute for salt.

The garum condiment, hailed by the great Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius and authors such as Pliny, who described it as a “delicious liqueur”, was a strongly flavoured and pricey product made with layers of salt and fish – mainly tuna, salmon, anchovies, sardines, fish blood and innards – left to soak in containers.

The sauce’s name stems from a now unknown type of fish called “garos”, used by the ancient Greeks, who were among the first to make an earlier type of garum, called garon.

In ancient Rome, the flavoursome dip was the second most expensive liquid on the market after perfumes, and is said to have had an unexpectedly pleasant smell. It developed a nasty smell only after it had become foul, explains Franchetti, and even then, the Roman chefs developed miraculous techniques to restore the condiment for lavish meals.

Garum, largely produced in factories in Pompeii, was enjoyed in its purest form or with the addition of spices and aromatic herbs such as fennel and mint. It was often added to wine, olive oil and vinegar, and other by-products of its fermentation were also used, including a paste-like substance found at the bottom of amphora – storage jars – which the Romans called hallec.

Believed to have medicinal properties, garum was used as a disinfectant, eye and ear cleanser, to treat burns and dog bites, and to fight high cholesterol. In Italy, what survives of garum today can be tasted in a salted anchovy sauce made in the southern town of Cetara, near Naples.

There are no documents or sources linking garum to nuoc mam or other Asian fermented fish sauces. According to Eugene Anderson, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, a food and nutrition expert who has written many books on China, the jury is still out.

“The ‘fermented’ fish sauces of south China and Southeast Asia are all one complex, but the Roman garum is probably an independent invention, though we can’t be sure,” he says. “It’s the same thing, basically, but there seem to be no intermediate forms that would imply a link.”

Garum and similar sauces may have travelled to Asia even before the rise of the Roman Empire, transported by voyagers from ancient Greece, or afterwards, along the Silk Road.

There are tales, more or less supported by scholars of ancient history, of “phantom” Roman legions lost in China who might have carried the fermented sauce with them, as it would not go off on long journeys. According to another theory, there was a direct route to Asia through Mesopotamia, where fermented fish sauces were popular as far back as 3000BC, Franchetti says.

“There is insufficient evidence to readily support the idea that the recipe for fermented fish travelled across the Silk Road and influenced nuoc mam. It’s not impossible, but there isn’t a historical smoking gun that would prove this theory,” says Trinh Khanh Linh, a doctoral student of Vietnamese culinary history at the University of Michigan in the United States, who instead sees a potential link between the Vietnamese staple and China’s soy sauce, which is also a product of fermentation.

“Nuoc mam uses the same technique as Chinese soy sauce production, and good nuoc mam shares the same level of consistency and clarity as desired for soy sauce,” she says. “We know that soy sauce is extremely ancient.

“Given the relationship between China and Vietnam, this could imply that the technique for producing fish sauce came from Chinese soy sauce production and was then modified and adapted to Vietnamese resources.”

Amber-coloured nuoc mam, used as a condiment with many Vietnamese dishes, has a less pungent flavour than other Asian fish sauces and its use has contributed to the global success of many dishes from the country. A meal is not Vietnamese until fish sauce is included, says Linh.

“The first taste of the fish sauce is salty and umami, but the aftertaste is subtly and surprisingly sweet,” Linh says. “I think the success of pho [noodle soup] internationally lies in the combination of fish sauce with the bone broth, star anise, cinnamon and cloves. The sweetness of this broth holds appeal even for people who are typically sceptical of the pungent smell of fish sauce.”

Acclaimed chef Peter Cuong Franklin, owner of Anan Restaurant and Nhau Nhau Bar in Ho Chi Minh City, believes nuoc mam “may trace its origin back to garum” given that the Vietnamese version is also made by interleaving layers of anchovies with sea salt and letting it ferment in wood or ceramic containers for about 12 months.

“This sauce is the indispensable secret ingredient that gives local dishes the taste and smell that make the cuisine distinctive,” Franklin says.

While the origins of nuoc mam may be unclear, the dipping sauce is such an integral part of the Vietnamese national identity that it plays a role in the origin myth of the Vietnamese people, the story of Dragon Prince Lac Long Quan – whose totem was a fish – his wife Au Co and their descendants, the Hung kings, says Linh.

“This indicates that regardless of whether nuoc mam was actually around in Vietnamese prehistory, Vietnamese conceptions of national identity certainly chose to project nuoc mam back into that history as a key token of what it means to be Vietnamese.”

Fermented fish sauces and dishes from different periods and places around the world show that various civilisations have found fermentation to be the best and easiest way to preserve food, Franchetti says.

Nowadays, tasty fermented fish sauces, broths, condiments and dishes can be found across Europe and the Arab countries, from the French pissalat – anchovy purée flavoured with cloves, thyme, bay leaf and black pepper mixed with olive oil – to Egypt’s fesikh (fermented, salted and dried grey mullet).

In Scandinavia, locals have a soft spot for even stronger-tasting foods that take fermentation techniques one step further. One popular and smelly speciality in Iceland during Christmas and New Year’s Eve festivities is a fermented shark meat delicacy called hakarl. The shark flesh is left to season in pits dug deep in the ice, cut into strips and hung to dry for months.

Vietnamese cuisine expert and chef Andrea Nguyen, author of The Pho Cookbook, also ponders the mysterious origin of fish sauce.

“Is it linked to the Mediterranean or to China?” she says. “The Chinese fermented fish with soybeans and salt to make a condiment during the Zhou dynasty [1046-256 BC]. Given that Vietnam and China are geographically neighbours, I venture that Vietnamese nuoc mam has linkages with what was happening in China.”

Regardless, nuoc mam is a staple, appreciated throughout Vietnam and beyond, Nguyen adds.

“Producers range from big to small,” she says. “My grandmother used to make it every year for her family. Fish sauce isn’t a go-to condiment in modern-day Mediterranean and Chinese cooking, but it is in Vietnamese cuisine.”

Source: SCMP


Vietnamese-style Slow-cooked Tuna Fillet in Clay Pot


21 oz tuna fillet, cubed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp white wine
1 tbsp chopped garlic
1 small onion, sliced
black pepper
spring onion
1 red chili, sliced


1 tomato, chopped
2 slices pineapple, chopped
2 tsp fish sauce
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp chopped shallots
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp bbq sauce


  1. Heat oil in wok, saute fish with white wine until lightly cooked. Remove from wok.
  2. Saute garlic and onion until soft, then add pineapple, stir-fry until soft.
  3. Add all sauce ingredients. Stir-fry briefly. Return fish to wok, fold in the sauce gently so it does not break up. Place in clay pot and cook until heated through.
  4. Sprinkle black pepper, spring onion and red chili slices on top. Serve hot with cooked rice.

Source: The Street Cookbook

Infographic: How Long Does It Take Until the Coronavirus Loses Its Infectivity?

See large image . . . . .

Source : The University of Hong Kong

Infographic: Aging and Health

Source : WHO

When You’re 84 . . . . . What Should Life Look Like As We Age?

Have you thought about what you’d like your life to look like when you’re 84?

When a leading health system leader put that question to Lewis A. Lipsitz, MD, Director, Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Lipsitz published an essay in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society that outlined his thoughts. What follows is a summary of his essay, titled “When I’m 84: What Should Life Look Like in Old Age.”

Knowing that I am a geriatrician, an esteemed health system leader once asked me: “What would you like your life to look like in old age?” I immediately listed the top contributors to a healthy longevity: Regular exercise, a well-balanced diet, a sense of purpose, social and family connections, intellectual stimulation and preventive health care.

However, many of us have trouble meeting these goals for various reasons. While we all hope to live long, productive lives, the field of geriatrics is more focused on achieving a long “health span,” in which we’re free of disease and disability, cognitively intact, and socially engaged. Since social factors account for most poor health outcomes, we need to help older adults address healthy longevity in our environment, our homes, communities, and lifestyles.

Here’s what I envision:


Like most people, I’d like to live in my own home until the day I die, but only if I can avoid social isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is a life-threatening condition, causing as much damage as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Living alone can be isolating and dangerous to our health as we age, especially as we face various diseases that limit mobility and the loss of partners, siblings, and friends. That’s why I want to live in a multigenerational, multicultural community where I can interact with other people of all ages. I’d like to be within a safe five to 10-minute walk or wheelchair ride across smooth sidewalks and safe street crossings to the retail stores, banks, restaurants, places of worship, parks, and entertainment venues that help me remain physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually engaged.

My housing needs to be affordable, easy to maintain, safe, and accessible to nutritional services, housekeeping, maintenance, and transportation. Hopefully, it includes technology that automatically adjusts to my needs and allows me to get around and enjoy independence, despite any disabilities I may develop.


I hope to remain engaged in meaningful, productive work. This could be part- or full-time, paid or unpaid, as long as it provides a sense of purpose, intellectual stimulation, and social interaction. There is a large, untapped workforce of retirees who have the knowledge, skill, experience, and stamina to make meaningful contributions to society. Areas where such a workforce is greatly needed include the care of children and older adults; environmental protection through recycling, shared transportation, and organic farming; food preparation and delivery; education; organizational leadership; and philanthropy.


Older adults fear many kinds of insecurity, including insecurity that is related to our finances (inadequate pensions or savings), health care (poor affordability, access, or quality of health care), physical (assault or theft), transportation (inadequate, inaccessible, or unsafe public transportation), food (inability to cook, access, or afford), and housing (loss of property value or increases in rent).

I would like to see the availability of government- and community-sponsored safety nets such as entitlement programs, shared ride services, communal dining areas or home-delivered meals, subsidized apartments, security alarms and guards, and trusted advisors. In a perfect world, you could access these services in community hubs, through an internet connection or telephone contact, supported in part by a senior workforce and funded through government and commercial partnerships.

Health Care

As people grow older and develop age-related diseases, two of the most common, feared, costly, yet least understood impairments are the loss of mobility and cognition (the abilit to think and make decisions). These often mark the onset of frailty and decline. People with these conditions may turn to healthcare professionals in medical practices, emergency departments, or hospitals for help. However, the most effective interventions, including age-friendly home renovations and exercise, can take place in your home or community.

Currently in the United States, the hospital is the center of the healthcare universe. Medical practices are owned by or affiliated with hospital-based medical centers and networks. While many community-based health-promotion services exist, they are often disconnected from mainstream medical facilities, and most physicians are unaware of them.

I would like to see health care centered in the home and community with healthcare providers in each apartment complex or neighborhood. Home visits would be routine and technology would enable healthcare to be delivered safely and effectively at home. Practices would be equipped to provide a “hospital at home” when necessary. You could access services for vaccinations and treatment for chronic diseases in neighborhood settings. I also can see the day when using wearable and/or at-home monitors could signal healthcare professionals of your personal risks so that they could step in to prevent problems.


Several aspects of my hopes for healthy aging are influenced by programs that already exist, especially for traditionally underserved populations. For example, many cities are building more affordable and subsidized senior housing facilities, although they often lack architectural and environmental standards or supportive services that can promote the health of their residents.

  • The “Community Aging in Place—Advancing Better Living for Elders” (CAPABLE) program developed at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing provides home-based nursing, occupational therapy, and repair services for low-income older adults to increase mobility, functionality, and capacity to age in place.
  • Vermont’s “Support and Services at Home” (SASH) deploys a wellness nurse and care coordinator who engage social-service agencies, community health providers, and nonprofit housing organizations to enable Vermonters to live independently at home.
  • The Massachusetts Health Policy Commission is supporting Hebrew SeniorLife’s “Right Care, Right Place, Right Time” (R3) project in low income senior housing to test the effect of supportive services on health care utilization.

These worthwhile initiatives are unfortunately limited to select populations. We need ways to fund programs like these across the country.

By combining the resources of government agencies, states, cities, private insurers, developers, and others, we could build model communities and test their impact on public health. I hope that by thinking about what we would like our later years to look like, future leaders can be more deliberate in creating living environments that promote a long and productive health span.

Source : Health in Aging

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