Fish Sauce and Rotten Meat

by Green Deane

in Critter Cuisine



Intentionally rotted herring, surstromming

Fish Sauce, Rotten Meat, and Other Garbage

There was a great scene from an episode of Barney Miller, a popular sitcom in the 70’s based in a police quadroom. Sgt. Wojohowitz — Polish — is passing Sgt. Nick Yamana — Japanese — who is eating his lunch with chops sticks. Wojohowitz looks at what Yamana is eating and says it smells like garbage.

“Garbage?” replies Yamana. “That’s an ancient Chinese delicacy… it’s got fish heads, cabbage leaves, carrot peels, radish roots…[he pauses]… come to think of it, it IS garbage!”

Hunger no doubt drove ancient man to eat rotten food. But being the animal that he is, man also developed a taste for the same. Amongst northern latitude natives a wide variety of foods were buried to make them rot. The answer to “why” is different flavors and textures, nutritional changes and sometimes preservation. Fish heads and eggs, beaver tails, seal flippers, whale blubber, sharks et cetera were all subject to rotting when they could have been prepared more conventional  ways.  (See “Eggs.” )  Where I grew up many a deer taken in hunting season was hung from a tree for a few weeks to “season.” And some folks felt a pheasant was not good to eat until it was hung by the neck until the body dropped off from rotting.

Cheese is perhaps the best represented example of rotted food in modern society. Saurkraut is also well known. Kimchi, buried for months, is popular in the orient. Rotted fish, such as Surstromming (Herring) or Hakarl (shark) is not widely consumed.

Canned anchovies, which taste far different than fresh anchovies, are the best example of semi-rotted fish still consumed widely. They are, for example, the major flavoring in Pasta Puttanesca, disintegrating and disappearing completely in the dish.  Their preserving process gives them a particular flavor, one that goes back thousands of years.

Fish sauces range from ancient Roman recipes to Asian fish sauces to Worcestershire Sauce. What? You didn’t know Worcestershire Sauce is a fish sauce based on anchovies? Now you do. Worcestershire Sauce  is modern version of a very old sauce called Garum. Here’s a Roman recipe:

“Take small fatty fish (for example, sardines) and a well-sealed container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.”

Here is a second one:

Chop small fish into tiny pieces. Add fish eggs and the entrails of sardines and sprats. Beat together until they become an even pulp. Set the mixture in the sun to ferment (rot) beating occasionally.  Wait six weeks or until evaporation has reduce the liquid content of the pulp. Drain the pulp (called liquamen)  into the jars. Use sparingly. It is strong in taste and flavor.

The above is for primitive purposes. Here are a couple of modern versions.


560 g black olives, stones removed.
16 anchovy fillets, soaked in water for 1 hour and patted dry
1 hard-boiled egg yolk
90 g capers
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon grainy mustard
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 teaspoon white pepper
60 ml olive oil

Mix all ingredients together in blender or food processor until light and fluffy. Puree the mixture in a food mill or push it through a sieve with a wooden spoon. Return to the blender or food processor and process briefly to obtain a smooth paste. Refrigerate.

Note: Do not substitute fresh herbs with dry as they will not puree properly, either omit, experiment with other fresh herbs, or increase the amounts of parsley.

 Quick Garum.

Cook a quart of grape juice, reducing it to one-tenth its original volume. Dilute two tablespoons of anchovy paste in the concentrated juice and mix in a pinch of oregano. (From A Taste of Ancient Rome.)

Perhaps I am being a stickler here but I have a hard time calling the intentional rotting of meat “fermentation.” Fermenting is usually the process of changing carbohydrates into something else, usually alcohol as in beer and wine or tartness as in yogurt and curdled milk. Rotting meat is the break down of proteins. There is no doubt that “fermented” sounds better than “rotting” and no doubt they are altering the original food. But, as a consumer I think we need to know the difference between the two.  Often. however, in some commercial operations a starch or a sugar is added to the meat so that bacteria can actually consume the added carbohydrates, which technically is “fermenting.” The reason for doing this, past flavor, is to insure a rapid growth of good bacteria which then reduces or shuts out the growth of bad bacteria.

Interestingly, the biggest health problem with rotting foods today is using modern utensils rather than doing it the way the ancients did. North America Indians who use plastic bags and glass containers to rot fish eggs or beaver tails rather than a grass-lined hole in the ground in the forest have suffered fatal cases of botulism. They also rot foods at a warmer temperature than in the past prompting botulism. Meats should be rotted below 40F or better 37F. You want to avoid growing botulism. It’s toxin is powerful. One gram can kill 1.5 million people.

There are several ways to inhibit the growth of botulism and subsequent toxin. High acid content (pH lower than 4.6 and use vinegar stronger than 4%) high sugar content (more than 50%) high salt content (7% or more)  high alcohol content, dehydration, and or refrigeration below 37F. You may ask how does one get temperatures below 37F long ago? The answer is the natives would rot these foods at the end of the harvest season, usually in the fall when in that part of the world winter was coming and temperatures dropping. Also, the permafrost was … ah… permanent frost so that helped a lot as well.

We have so many choices in food and flavor today that it is difficult to convey the diet of hunter gatherers. They had few spices and the menu just didn’t change much. You would have the same thing to eat for months at a time. Thus any change was welcomed, and that included rotted foods.  The point of this article is those little fish and cleaned bits you might toss away can be made into a condiment, one you might find tasty if you do it right.

The word “botulism” comes from the Dead Latin word Botulus which means sausage. The disease was called “botulism” because it was first reported in Wildbad, Germany  in 1793.  Thirteen people ate blood sausage there and got botulism. Six died. Incidentally there is the “Handbook of Fermented Meat and Poultry” by Fidel Toldra. A scholarly book for professionals, at last check it was selling for $240.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rick S March 21, 2014 at 06:04

Interesting story.
It is a wonder that modern man still intentionally eats rotten food. “Century Eggs” are a good example.
Of course we “rot” aka “age” a lot of our food. ( Salsa any one? )


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