Fermentation has long been a favourite pastime of chefs, with many looking to traditions from myriad cuisines for inspiration.
Hospitality speaks to Anchovy’s Thi Le and Attica Summer Camp’s George Wintle about their respective interests in fish sauce and garum.
While there’s no shortage of commercially produced Vietnamese-style fish sauces on the market, Anchovy chef–owner Thi Le hasn’t shied away from fermenting different variations in-house.
The Melbourne restaurant uses a range of options depending on the scenario. “It’s hard to keep up with the production, but I do small batches of different styles for certain dishes,” explains Le. “When I want to showcase the fish sauce a little bit more, I might do batches on my own, but it normally takes a while to ferment and it’s a lot of labour — it can be a year before we can even touch it.”
Le lists three styles she’s been playing around with: a more pungent version of fish sauce most are familiar with, a squid rendition and a crab option. The chef is also experimenting with a Lao-style fish sauce. “I haven’t made it before, but I’ve found the fish stays intact [during the process] and the liquid that comes out almost clarifies itself.”
Le takes whole carp, sourced from the Murray River, and removes the guts before rolling the flesh and frames in wheat bran. Then everything gets pressed down. “I decided to go down that path because after you extract the liquid for the fish sauce, you can wash off the fish and use it for other things,” says Le. “The fish itself is now cured, so it’s almost ham-like. That one has been going since March or April  and it has another three to four months. They normally do it with rice bran, but I can’t get hold of any.”
Sardines were the subject of a less-successful attempt. “To be honest, I don’t like the flavour of sardines,” says Le. “They make it with anchovies in Vietnam, and because they’re so small, there aren’t as many guts. Sardines are a lot larger, so when you have all the guts, it’s a very intense, pungent flavour.”
Next on the list is whitebait, but Le has had trouble sourcing the fish, along with anchovies, from local fishermen. “We’re in a country that has lots of amazing seafood, so to do something the Vietnamese have been doing for a long time with our seafood is interesting for me,” says Le.
A similar ethos drives Oakridge alumni George Wintle’s pursuit of garum, a fish sauce analogue that was once ubiquitous throughout ancient Mediterranean cuisines. Originally a fermented fish product used as a condiment, garum’s rebirth has shape-shifted to suit modern cookery.
Wintle’s interest in garum began under the tutelage of former Oakridge head chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barrett. It’s no surprise, given the venue was known for its efforts to minimise waste.
“Garum is a really good way to minimise waste, especially from meat, which would normally just go into stock,” says Wintle. “Waste doesn’t have to go in the compost, especially when it’s coming from a good supplier. You don’t want to waste it in any regard, so we’d take all the trim and turn it into garum.”
The process is essentially the same no matter the base ingredient, with adjustments made to ratios of salt to protein. It’s essentially the same method used centuries ago, which involved throwing fish scraps — bones and innards — from gutting into limestone amphora, layering with salt and covering the contents with a mesh cloth.
The mixture was left to ferment, with the heat of the sun converting juice into garum. The result, apparently, was something soy sauce-esque. “It’s very close,” says Wintle. “I took a lot of inspiration from Zilber. What we’re doing now is incorporating koji bacteria, which is commonly used in soy sauce and miso. It provides an environment for good bacteria to survive. It alters the flavour and speeds up the process quite a bit. It takes eight weeks instead of six months to a year.”
While many chefs in Australia have continued to utilise seafood, others, like Wintle, have started to experiment with protein-heavy produce. “It can be anything that’s rich in protein,” says the chef. “[At Oakridge] we did one with egg whites because we had heaps left over from making desserts. We made one with mushrooms and I’ve made them with chilli as well.”
Finding the best ratios of salt to protein comes from a mix of trial and error and educated guesswork. Garum made from charcuterie or leftover roasted chicken will need less salt than one made from raw meat. “Charcuterie is already so high in salt, you don’t need to add much,” says Wintle. “We had heaps of roast chicken trim left over from a function once, so I just lobbed that into a pot with some koji and salt; it ticked over and came out really well.”
The same approach goes for adding in any bacteria, such as koji, and water. “With mushrooms, you wouldn’t add as much water because they’re so high in water content already,” says Wintle. “Whereas you might want to add more for roast chicken because it’s quite dry.”
Of course, the end result varies. “Some might be sweeter, some might be really meaty,” says Wintle. However, the level of difference depends, again, on what you start with. “We did a lot with raw beef, kangaroo and lamb and ended up with a similar end result,” says Wintle. “I guess if you’ve cooked a chicken and put in all these additions, it will change it — there would be a difference between making garum with raw chicken versus cooked.”
Like Le, some experiments didn’t produce a desirable outcome. “When we first did the egg white garum … I don’t think I’ve ever smelt something so bad,” she says. “When you’re making garum, it sits at around 60 degrees for about eight weeks — imagine if you left some egg whites out in the sun for two months. It was the most horrible thing.”
Le also has to make minor adaptations to her fermenting process to suit different proteins. “The crab is quite intense,” she says. “Where my mum is from in Cà Mau — the deep south of Vietnam — you normally let everything turn to mash if you’re making fish sauce from anchovies.
“When you’re dealing with crab, it’s slightly different because the shell doesn’t break down. For the one I made recently, instead of adding whole salt, I added a 30 per cent [salt] brine, just to cover [the crab] and let it sit. After about eight months, all the flesh inside the crab leached out and flavoured the water.”
The squid variation is made with offcuts. “I blend all the bits and the ink with salt and let it sit for seven to eight months,” says Le. “Then we extract the liquid, pasteurise it by boiling and flavour with galangal.”
The process of fermenting might seem simple, but Le says it can be quite difficult because of the tendency for fluctuating results. “It’s all about being there to watch it, taste it and see it,” she says.
“At the end of the day, it’s all your own preference. I think if we had more time and infrastructure, I’d probably let things ferment a lot longer and age a bit more. At the end of the day, it’s ‘something and salt’. It’s trial and error.”
Le prefers to veer away from products such as traditional garums, which she finds too fishy. “Maybe It’s a Vietnamese palate thing,” she says. “Depending on what I’m doing with it, the whole thing needs to be balanced. Fish sauce needs to work in harmony to add depth and body.”
The desired profile depends on expected use. Le mostly uses the more pungent fermented fish sauce to season soups. “But we also turned it into a paste,” she says. “We pounded out eggplant, tamarind, chilli, garlic and lemongrass and incorporated it all into a thick sauce served with crudites. The crab one I’ve used as a dressing mixed with olive oil. With all the fish sauces and fermented products, we don’t actually use a lot of salt at the restaurant. [Fish sauce] is a bit rounder, more complex.”
Wintle mainly turned to garum as a seasoning agent. “We were using it for quite a few different applications,” he says. “Or we would brush it on meats we were barbecuing.”
As with the fermentation process, the more you experiment, the more uses you’ll find. One thing’s for sure, a house-made fish sauce or garum is sure to set a menu apart from others.