Roman Tuna and Garum

Roast tuna from a 4th century Roman cookbook featuring the all-around popular Roman condiment, garum, and its all-around not-so-great taste

Let me just start off by saying that in my 12 years of cooking, I have never ever bought fish nor had any desire to eat any cooked fish.

Maybe it’s the way that Chinese people cook fish. As a child, I was always like, “Why do we have to eat the fish with the skin and bones? All the white people just eat fillets.” And my mom would screech the shopping cart to a stop in the middle of the aisle, peer at me through her coke bottle glasses, and bellow, “LIZ, IF WE WANTED TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR OURSELVES, WE WOULD JUST EAT WITH FORKS OR DEVELOP AN ALPHABET INSTEAD OF MEMORIZING PICTOGRAMS FOR OUR LANGUAGE.”

So this has started a near lifelong distaste for cooked fish. This blog is all about expanding my (cooking) horizons, but I never want to slide a bloody and lukewarmly alive fish from the Chinese supermarket into my frying pan.

Hong and I settled for a half compromise – he picked up tuna sections (bone in but no skin) from Whole Foods and this recipe has changed my stance on fish. If you harbor the same dislike for fish but like sushi, hey, it’s not that bad.

Roman Tuna

This recipe was taken from the Apicius cookbook (a 4th century Roman cookbook which I have previously referenced before for another recipe here).

A common Roman ingredient is garum, a fermented fish sauce substituted for salt in expensive dishes. It was actually key to the economy of Pompeii and residue from garum containers was used to confirm the eruption date of Mount Vesuvius. I wanted to be as authentic as possible and obtained a $16 bottle of the modern substitute, Colatura di Alici, which is only produced in Campania, Italy.
Apicius Garum Colatura di Alici

And having tried this in multiple recipes, I have to say – authenticity can be so overrated… It tastes like Vietnamese fish sauce that’s widely available for $2 in Chinese supermarket. Save your money for the tuna.

Combine vinegar, garum/fish sauce, olive oil, shallots, pepper, lovage/celery seeds, and fresh mint to make a vinaigrette.
Apicius Roman Tuna topping

Rub olive oil, pepper, and salt into the tuna fillets.
Apicius Roast Tuna Spices

Grill one side and flip when slightly browned. Brush the roast side with the vinaigrette (without mint leaves). When the other side is mostly cooked, flip over again and brush the other side with more vinaigrette.
Apicius Cooked Tuna Filet
Apicius Cooked Tuna Filet 02

Serve with the remainder of the vinaigrette.
Apicius Roast Tuna

Compared to the other recipes in this cookbook (nut cake with honey and garum anyone?), this dish was pretty good. I would make (and have made) it again and rate it:

5 fermented fish out of 5
fish rating

Time: 40 min
Serves: 4


4 tuna fillets
Salt and pepper as needed

For vinaigrette
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp garum/colatura di alici or Vietnamese fish sauce
5 tbsp olive oil
4 finely chopped shallots
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp lovage or celery seeds
25g fresh mint

Let’s Make This!

  1. Combine the red wine vinegar, garum, olive oil, shallots, pepper, lovage/celery seeds, and fresh mint in a small bowl. Grind the mint leaves slightly with a spoon to absorb the vinaigrette better.
  2. Brush the tuna fillets with olive oil. Rub in pepper and salt as needed.
  3. Grill one side of the tuna fillets until slightly brown. Flip over. Brush the vinaigrette (excluding the mint leaves) onto the browned side.
  4. Flip over again. Brush vinaigrette on other browned side. Cook until the outside of the tuna is all done. The inside of the tuna should remain pink depending on how rare you want it.
  5. Serve with the remainder of the vinaigrette (including mint leaves). If you want a starch paired with this meal, toast bread drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with garlic.

Sources: Apicius Cookbook; Around the Roman Table by Patrick Faas

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