Hundreds of pounds of seafood comes through the doors of our kitchen every week.
Rock cod, Black cod, Ling cod. Petrale sole, English sole, Sand dab. Skate, Soupfin, Thresher shark, ratfish, and dogfish.
Sheepshead, Sea bass, Barracuda. Mackerel, Anchovy, Herring. Box Crab, Dungeness Crab, Rock Crab.
Spot prawn, Spiny Lobster, Coonstripe shrimp, Grass shrimp. Mussel, Clam, Whelk, Urchin, Cucumber, Percebes.
I forgot to mention the Monkeyface Prickleback, the White Sturgeon, the King Salmon, the Mt. Lassen Trout, the Steelhead Trout, and the Chinook. Halibut, Californian and Alaskan.
Oh, and oysters - many of those.
Thorny heads. Sculpin. Bluefin Tuna. Bigeye Tuna. Yellowtail Jack - the Kingfish. Swordfish, Opah, Monchong.
Sometimes we get scallops, but not the Pacific wild rock scallops (those are protected and scarce), the farmed East Coast ones (though still live and in the shell, and wonderful). Giant Pacific Octopus, Top snails, Abalone.
There are surely others that I am momentarily forgetting, and still others that we will find in the years to come that will become part of our regular, and irregular, “run of show” in programming for the restaurant. And the “show” begins with the fish, the whole fish, which we must necessarily break down into prepared edible parts for the satisfaction of our guests in the form of delectable bites of culinary masterfulness. For most consumers, this does not include the fish offal, bones, skin, and anything else that remains after the prime pieces are extracted.
But what, if anything, is done with the waste of this process? Well, the answer in most conventional seafood restaurants is that, sadly, it goes to the garbage or green bin. I would say that this is probably the case for 99.9% of all restaurants and cut houses. Lots of fishy compost out there? Well, at least in SF, but probably not in other parts of this large, and very disjointed union we call America. Different states have different ways of taking care of waste, and most states don’t do a very good job of it.
There is a better way to operate a fish restaurant, and a better way to handle fish waste in general.
The answer to this dilemma was solved millenia ago, out of the Mediterranean basin, out of Southeast Asia, and plausibly anywhere else in the world that had access to the ocean, a relatively warm annual climate, salt, and a demanding population of fish eaters. The most famous example is that of the Romans. Obviously. These guys excelled at almost everything. And they particularly excelled at taking vats of knife battered fish guts, mixing them with the correct dosage of salt and water, and allowing the stinking contents to ferment in giant outdoor basins made of stone under the brutal heat of the Mediterranean sun, exposed to insects, birds, airborne microbial flotsam, and the eyes of the Gods!
No, for real. This shit was brilliant, and by no means the invention of the Romans, but of the many learnings of generations of people funneled down over time, running in tandem with developed regional food traditions around the world. But in Rome, like many other aspects of this highly organized empire, we find the most standardized practice of fish sauce production due likely to the fact that salt was one of the critical ingredients in fish sauce. And salt was an expensive commodity back then. Indeed, salt’s value in Roman times was basically similar to monetary currency, and many Roman soldiers were actually compensated in salt? Hence, the word “salary”, coming from the latin root “sal”. Yah, I got some esoteric historical knowledge in me wee old noggin, but let’s get back to the fish sauce.
So, the elaborate process involved in Garum production was coordinated with the fishing industry of the times, the salt harvesters, the labor (slaves, likely), and the regional ports where much of the commerce drove activity for the Empire - a layered historical process in the region spanning back to before the written word of historical account. That’s a very long time ago. Call it the start of civilization, as far as we are concerned.
The Romans can be said as the ones responsible for perfecting the process of production (mostly because of historical written accounts and preserved remains of ancient ruins), and the drive for production was supported by the market demand for this commodity. Romans simply loved this fishy, salty, funky sauce. They put it in everything, literally substituting garum for salt in common recipes, so that everything they made, or much of it, had that umami pow! that comes from a ferment. Just think on that recipe that we all know from the 5th century AD, Apicius De re Culinaria, that describes a baked omelet sweetened liberally with honey and seasoned with garum, and we can easily see how boundaries between savory and sweet were as loosely played with then as they are now. At my own restaurant, I encourage the pastry team to get fishy with the sweets. Fish sauce caramel was a natural winner there, and an easy way to get the fishy funk into many sweet applications.
Over the years, we have used the great modern culinary reference on fermentation, the work of the now defunct NOMA restaurant, as a fundamental resource for our house ferments. I particularly like this book because of how clearly it is written, and because the recipes actually work when followed - a rarity for most cookbooks. The secrets to recipes are often lost in translation, and in the “knowledge” of execution, there is oftentimes, I find, more to it in the actual experience of the chef replicating the recipe, that undefinable “je ne sais pas quoi” that drives the successful execution of a master recipe. This is not the case with the NOMA guide to fermentation. Their recipes work. Period.
In practice, I have used the NOMA guide as a quick reference for inspiration, because the exact products that they have access to differ from those in my neck of the woods. What remains helpful as a constant, is their metrics for recipes that allow you to adjust the inputs within a certain window for success. For example, the ratio of salt in, say, a miso, or a garum recipe, can vary depending on what your tolerance level is for bacterial growth, and basically how obsessively you are going to watch your projects in action, and take action on them, if they start to go awry. So much of the success of fermentation depends on the environmental conditions of the space that you are fermenting in. In the olden days, these conditions were often predicated on where you were physically in the world, and not much could be done about that. For example, if you lived in the middle of Continental Europe, hundreds of miles from the sea, you were not likely making a fish sauce. Or, if you were not living in Japan, where soybeans are the major protein crop of the country, you were likely not making your own house misos. Climate, temperature, and weather were also important in this historic recipes, as I have already discussed. But in the modern kitchen, most of those factors can be manipulated, so really almost anything is possible to replicate nowadays.
As far as our fish sauce is concerned, there are basically two versions that we make. There is the traditional formula, which is ground fish bones, guts, and trim (or literally whole fish with the gallbladder removed (this is make the sauce extremely bitter due to the amount of enzyme breaking acid contained in this part of the fish’s anatomy)), salt, and water. Mix all of this together, put it in a food safe plastic container, cover the top with a sheet of plastic wrap with a little room for air to circulate in the mix, and place the container in a temperature controlled environment - like the holding ovens that we have at the restaurant. In three months, or less, mixing the contents of the container weekly, the gray, murky mass of raw ground fish material has been transformed into a rich chocolatey caramel fish sauce, having the appearance of a fine soy sauce.
The second version, the NOMA version, uses either house developed koji rice, or barley inoculated with koji spores, to add a distinctive umami richness to the fish sauce. The koji, or aspergillus oryzae, is the fungus particular to forming on rice, and responsible for soy sauce, miso, and a whole host of savory notes that we associate with many historically Asian foods. The addition of koji to the fish sauce process is like adding gasoline to a fire, accelerating the process by which enzymes break down the protein strings, releasing more unexplored flavors as they go. The result is an intense, umami rich, muscled up version of a fish sauce.
As our fish sauce program develops at the restaurant, we have already produced fish sauces that are specific to individual fish species, crustacean, or other, creating a library codex of fish sauces that subtly nuance the food, by adding a specific note of intensity at the discretion of the chef. Shrimp garum to complement a roasted turnip dish? Rockfish garum with brussel sprouts. Octopus garum on the octopus carpaccio and seasonal citrus? Oyster fish sauce caramel on delicate rice milk ice cream?
The possibilities are seemingly endless for garums as a category, but by no means written in stone once a recipe is developed. So, in your own kitchens, when doubt and creativity push us to test our culinary limit, remember the old adage, though modified for my own use: go with your gut.
Peter J Hemsley