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  • Writer's pictureSanto Vino


Updated: Mar 7, 2022

A fermented fish sauce called “Bagoóng” is what gives Filipino cuisine a distinctive character. The thing is, Bagoóng has a lot in common with an ancient Roman specialty called “Garum”.

Roman Garum, like Filipino and other South East Asian fish sauces, was made by layering fish and salt until it is fermented. There were versions made with whole fish and some other with just the blood and guts.

The available historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the Roman sauce was typically made by crushing the innards of such fishes as anchovies, sardines or mackerel and then fermenting them in salted water.

The finished product – indicated as "noble" on a famous 1st Century A.D. epigram by the Roman poet Martial - was probably mild and subtle in flavour. After the liquid was filtered, the remains were used by the poorest classes to flavour their staple porridge called: “Farinata”.

Mention of Garum is plentiful in ancient Roman literature since the 3rd Century B.C., notably appearing in many recipes featured in the famous Roman cookbook of Marcus Gabius Apicius, a Roman gourmet and lover of luxury. In fact, there are in Central and Southern Italy many archaeological sites of ancient factories which once mass produced Garum in various styles for all social classes consumption in the Roman Empire.

When mixed with wine (oenogarum), vinegar, black pepper or oil, Garum enhanced the flavor of a wide variety of dishes, including - for instance - boiled veal and steamed mussels, even pear and honeyed soufflés!

Pliny the Elder remarked in his "Natural History" that Garum was diluted with water to the color of honey (hydrogarum) and often distributed to Roman legionnaires as a drink. According to the ancient Roman writers, a bottle of quality Garum could cost something like today's 500.00 US Dollars.

With the collapse of Roman Empire in the 5th Century A.C., barbarians and pirates started to pillage all cities and settlements on the Italian coasts. Thus, Roman Garum’s use and production gradually declined and disappeared. However, through the centuries, vestiges of Garum remained in a few little pockets in Southwest Italy, notably on the coast of Campania region, between Amalfi and Salerno, where the “Colatura di Alici”, a clear amber liquid made from fermented, salted anchovies is still produced and sold in bottles.

Basically, Garum was the Ketchup of the ancient world. By the way, Ketchup itself was originally a savory fish sauce which contained neither sugar nor tomatoes, thus sharing its origins, culinary functions and popularity with Garum and Bagoóng.

Garum still remains of interest to food historians and chefs, and it has been recently reintroduced into modern food preparation. In fact, Garum was not only a flavoring agent, but an important source of protein in ancient Roman diets.

Today in many parts of the world, particularly Southeast Asia, fish sauces still provide essential nutrients being a common ingredient of different national and regional cuisines, used similarly as Garum was in Rome.

Bagoóng is a mixture of fermented fish or shrimp sauce known for its strong smell especially when fermented for a longer time.  There are two types of Bagoóng: “Isda” – made of fermented fish and salt and “Alamang” – made of fermented krill and salt. Bagoóng Isda is usually made from a variety of fish species, mainly anchovies, pony fish and herrings.

In a Filipino table there are many uses of Bagoóng as a condiment. Kare-Kare, just to mention a specific popular dish, is almost always complemented with Bagoóng which is used as condiment also when eating fried fish. Typically, unripe green mangoes are often consumed with Bagoóng. Mixing Bagoóng with steamed eggplant, tomatoes and onions is also popular in the Philippines.

Kare-Kare with Bagoóng is a dish extremely difficult to pair with wine. However, at iTrulli Fashion Food and Wine, we have managed to match it - during a Filipino Food and Italian Wine pairing exercise featured by "The Inquirer" - with a red Sagrantino di Montefalco, a full bodied autochthonous Italian grape from Umbria which, despite its strong tannic temper, proved to best balance by contrast to the sharp and edged notes of that Filipino dish.

Sagrantino is a wine that blasts the palate with volume, tannin, acidity and wild waves of flavors. It is a potent, soft and velvety red that back bold fruit layers of black berries held together by tannins. Not by coincidence it pairs well with black truffle, for example. Kare Kare is a stew of beef and/or ox tail in thick peanut sauce - mixed with different sautéed vegetables such as eggplant, chinese cabbage, string beans, banana blossom - almost always served with Bagoóng.

In this unprecedented pairing exercise of ours, the bitterness and astringency of Sagrantino’s tannins mirrored Bagoóng’s saltiness and sourness by contrast. The powerful softness of the Sagrantino unexpectedly matched Bagoóng’s flavor enhancing its funky, fishy umami flavor.

The Garum-Bagoóng connections prove that time and space are not relevant to the aspiration of wine lovers, through food and wine, to fulfill their sensory pleasures by achieving a higher level of dining enjoyment.

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