SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Speaking of fish sauce - and we don't do that a lot - fish sauce, that salty, addictive condiment, it's part of what gives Southeast Asian cooking its distinctive taste, as we just heard. But as Deena Prichep reports, this cornerstone of Eastern cooking actually has a long history on another continent - Europe.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Like a lot of chefs, Josh McFadden is a big fan of the funky, flavor-enhancing notes of Asian fish sauce. But since he cooks Italian food, he never used it in his own restaurants. Until one day in New York.
JOSH MCFADDEN: I was at Chelsea Market at a store, and saw this little small bottle, and it was kind of a defining moment, of aha, there's a different ingredient to be able tell the story of what Italian food is.
PRICHEP: That bottle was colatura di alici, a fish sauce from Southwest Italy. And it turns out that its story is a surprisingly old one. Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino studies the early roots of garum, a fish sauce that goes all the way back to the Roman Empire.
CLAUDIO GIARDINO: We got evidence of garum production until the 5th century BC, but most probably something earlier as well.
PRICHEP: Like Asian fish sauces, the Roman version was made by layering fish and salt until it ferments - sometimes whole fish, and sometimes just their guts. There were expensive bottles of fine garum, and garum for slaves. It was popular throughout the empire.
GIARDINO: In Sicily, in Spain, in Portugal, in Northern Africa, we got remains of these garum factories, with 20, 40, 50 people working. Maybe more.
SALLY GRAINGER: And after the fish sauce is made, it was then turned into compound sauces - with honey, with wine, with vinegar, with other herbs, with oil.
PRICHEP: Sally Grainger is a food historian who recreates classical recipes, which were full of fish sauce. She says Romans fermented their sauce with less salt than modern versions. This releases more of the protein, which makes garum a good source of nutrients. And also gives it a rich, savory taste.
GRAINGER: There's a great deal more umami as a result. Very, very flavorful. It explodes in the mouth, and you have a long, drawn-out flavor experience, which is really quite remarkable.
PRICHEP: So, how did something so savory and nutritious and widespread just disappear? Archaeologist Claudio Giardino said that it comes down to two things: first off, taxes.
GIARDINO: In the Roman times, salt was a cheap material. When the Roman Empire collapsed, they put taxes on the salt. And because of these taxes, became difficult to produce garum.
PRICHEP: And the collapse of the Roman empire created another problem: pirates.
GIARDINO: The pirates started destroying the cities and the industries nearby the coast. You could be killed any moment by the pirates without the protection of the Romans.
PRICHEP: And so, Italian fish sauce pretty much disappeared. But it remained in a few little pockets - like the town that makes modern-day colatura di alici. And chefs, like Josh McFadden, at Portland restaurant Ave Gene's, are happy to find it. Like the ancient Romans, McFadden blends it into sauces that bring out the flavor of everything from grilled meats to raw vegetables.
MCFADDEN: It's so good, right? And this is raw cauliflower. There's just so much going on, so many different dimensions.
PRICHEP: And they're dimensions that McFadden, Giardino and others feel are long overdue for a return to the Italian table. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.