The Italian version of aged fish sauce is called colatura, a rich ingredient mainly used to add a flavor boost to pasta and vegetables. This classic condiment is made much like its Southeast Asian counterpart, using only two ingredients—in this case, anchovies and salt. It's popular in Italy as a finishing product on just about anything where you'd like to add a savory, umami kick.
- Translates To: Anchovy sauce
- Other Names: Colatura di alici
- Shelf Life: 3 years from production date
- Origin: Cetara in the Amalfi Coast of Italy
What Is Colatura?
This rich sauce dates all the way back to Roman times when it was called garum. Now it's called colatura, and centuries later this sauce remains a popular way to add a savory note to food in Italian cuisine. Today, colatura di alici still gets produced off the Amalfi Coast in the town Cetara using only local anchovies, salt, and wood. The fresh fish is gutted and filleted and then layered in small wooden barrels. Once full, the lid is weighted down to press the fish and salt together and it ferments in a temperate space for about three years.
As the fish ages in the barrel, the anchovies exude a liquid that becomes colatura di alici, an Italian phrase that translates to "anchovy drippings." It's very similar to fish sauces from Southeast Asia, though the aging process is about three times longer. When the colatura is done, the barrels get drilled at the bottom to let the liquid pass through any leftover anchovy bits one last time before getting processed and bottled.
Because of the time it takes to make colatura, it's one of the more expensive ingredients available. Think of this condiment more as a specialty finishing product than a main component, and use it to enhance foods, especially Italian-inspired dishes.
Colatura Vs. Southeast Asian Fish Sauce
While these two condiments are made in the same way, they do have distinct differences. For starters, colatura uses only anchovies and salt from the Amalfi Coast. Southeast Asian fish sauces can be made in a variety of ways, usually with shrimp, anchovy, mackerel, and any other high-oil fish that has a strong flavor, as well as local salt. These Asian sauces also may have herbs, molasses, or roasted rice added both for flavor and as a filler.
Both fish sauces are aged in wood, though the type of wood barrels used is different. Also, keep in mind the air and environment the mixture sits in changes the flavors as well. Asian fish sauce is typically used in Asian cooking, while colatura is used in Italian meals.
Italian colatura di alici gives a dish a layer of umami and salty richness. That doesn't mean it's only for Italian food. Dash some on grilled vegetables, a sizzling pork chop, on top of roasted fish, and in salad dressing. Colatura is especially good in Caesar salad dressing and drizzled on top of a simple pasta dish. Just remember to use it sparingly—not only is this ingredient pricy, but a little goes a long way.
How To Cook With Colatura
This aged fish sauce isn't so much used for cooking food as it is for finishing a dish. Often it gets mixed into a salad dressing, tossed in with pasta and Parmesan, used to spike a soup at the end and to give roasted vegetables a layer of umami. Colatura can also be used in lieu of salt in some recipes, or in tandem as long as the salt portion is lessened.
What Does Colatura Taste Like?
Imagine spiking food with the taste of the sea, but without that fish-heavy essence one associates with the ocean. That's what colatura is like—it's salty without the tell-tale fishy note of those Amalfi Coast anchovies. Yet, because it's made from those small fish, it packs a richness that gives sauces, dressings, vegetables, and even meat a deeper flavor. It has a consistency slightly thicker than water, similar to soy sauce.
There aren't many recipes that use colatura directly since it's not a common pantry item. However, it's a fun ingredient to play with and use in places where other fish sauce is required, in salad dressing, in place of anchovies or salt, or any dish that could benefit from an umami boost. Add a splash or two to these recipes:
Where To Buy Colatura
This specialty product can be found in the Italian condiment aisle of high-end grocery stores. Colatura also graces the shelves of many Italian grocers and can be found online when seeking out international ingredients. It's not a cheap option, nor is it well known or used enough in the United States to be easily found in any store. It is typically sold in a small jar similar to Asian fish sauce.
Colatura is a shelf-stable ingredient, so it can stay in its original packaging in a dark pantry as long as it' is well-sealed. Or, put the bottle in the fridge if the kitchen environment is too hot and steamy. It will keep for about three years under good conditions.