Try a spoonful of nuoc mam and taste history. This fish sauce, which is an essential condiment to the Vietnamese kitchen, may be the closest food we have to what ancient Romans enjoyed at their tables.
Nuoc mam is made by layering anchovies or other small fish and salt and leaving this for a year. The mixture ferments and the liquid is poured off and used. Like virgin olive oils, the first batch is considered the finest quality and may be labeled nhi. All levels of nuoc mam iares pungent. Some people say the sauce reminds them of old socks. To others it is as succulent as a ripe Camembert. No matter. It is never eaten by itself. Instead it is as elemental to Asian cooking as soy sauce.
The Romans had a similar sauce to enhance their meals. It was called liquamen or garum and was factory produced in Pompeii and other towns. It was made almost the same way that nuoc mam is. Layers of salt and fish were placed in an earthenware jar and left to ferment. A golden clear liquid rose to the top. It added a fishy, salty, slightly cheesy flavour to any dish.
Nuoc mam (or nam pla as it is known in Thai) is sold in large bottles and will last over a year in a dark cupboard. Because of its saltiness, extra salt is usually not necessary in recipes in which nuoc mam is an ingredient. It is also high in vitamin B and protein. For a simple rice dish, fry a finely chopped clove of garlic and an onion. Add a handful of cooked shrimp. When the garlic is golden brown, stir in a tablespoon of nuoc mam and a tablespoon of ketchup. Add a cup of cold cooked rice and heat through while stirring. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and green onion.