Although it is hailed as the national condiment of the United States, ketchup is interestingly, not an American invention. It earned its title because it is reported to be found in 97 percent of households in the country.
Ketchup is believed to have come from Southern China. Instead of tomatoes as the main ingredient, the first ketchup was made of fermented fish.
As linguist Dan Jurafsky shows, evidence of a “fermented paste made of fish entrails” is found in an ancient Chinese agricultural text from 544 CE, 齐民要术 Qimin Yaoshu. This same method of fermenting fish and making it into a condiment was applied to fermenting soybeans, which the Chinese discovered to be more economical. It also became a major trade commodity for China.
Fermented fish sauce soon died out in China. However, the technique of fermenting fish and making it into a condiment still remained in Southeast Asia, and it was from this region that it eventually made its way to the West, and back to China.
Food historians, Naomichi Ishige and H.T. Huang believe that during the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the Chinese sea traders who brought fermented fish sauce from Vietnam and Cambodia back to China. Many of these sea traders were speakers of Southern Min (or Min nan), a Chinese dialect spoken in Fujian province, Guangdong province, Taiwan, as well as in Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, the variants or subdialects of Southern Min are Hokkien, Taiwanese, Teo chew, etc. It is from this connection that the etymology of ketchup came about. In Southern Min, the sauce was called “ke-tchup”, “ge-thcup” or “kue-chiap”.“British’s use of fermented mushrooms, or fermented walnuts, was an effort to produce the same savoury taste that the Chinese fish ketchup had.”
It is also most likely in Southeast Asia, where the sauce made its way to the West during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is believed that the British encountered fish sauce in Southeast Asia, and tried to make a replica of it back home. “As Samuel Johnson tells us in his great Dictionary in 1755, English mushroom ketchup was just an attempt to imitate the taste of an earlier original sauce that came from Asia”, says linguist, Dan Jurafsky.
British’s use of fermented mushrooms, or fermented walnuts, was an effort to produce the same savoury taste that the Chinese fish ketchup had. Jane Austen’s best friend, Martha Lloyd, had one such recipe of a fermented walnut sauce found in her household book. To make the walnut ketchup, Lloyd suggests pounding the walnuts into a paste before adding vinegar and salt into it. Subsequently, it is to be left in an earthen pot to ferment for up to eight hours.
Ketchup’s arrival in the U.S. has much to do with globalisation. According to economist and sociologist Andre Gunder Frank, Europe wanted to trade with Asia with some other commodity other than money. It was the 19th century, and Europe had colonies in America, where gold and silver were produced. With gold and silver, Europe was able to trade with Asia for industrial goods and food items such as ketchup and brought them into America.
It is believed that using tomatoes as the main ingredient for ketchup, unlike its predecessors, was the result of experiments by the Americans. In fact, the very first known recipe of tomato ketchup to be published was written in 1812 by James Mease, an American scientist, and horticulturalist. Mease’s recipe calls for the use of tomato pulp, a few spices, and brandy.
How ketchup has come to be ubiquitous and gained so much love in the U.S. has much to do with Henry John Heinz, the man who invented chemical-free ketchup. Commercial tomato ketchup might have taken root in the kitchens of America, except for the problem of the use of preservatives. In order to prolong its shelf life, sodium benzoate was used, which proved to be injurious to health. The matter became so severe that Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, the head of the Bureau of Chemistry within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), saw a need to ban the chemical completely from being used as a food additive. He began working with Heinz, who shared the same view of using high-quality ingredients in food production, instead of harmful chemicals. In replacement of sodium benzoate, Heinz used ripe, red tomatoes, which contain pectin, a natural preservative found in fruits. In addition to this, Heinz also used a larger amount of vinegar, which is another form of natural preservative.
Heinz’s chemical-free ketchup became such a huge success, it significantly gave rise to the use of commercial ketchup. In 1905, his company sold a total of 5 million bottles of ketchup.
Over the years, Heinz has faced some competitions from companies such as Del Monte, who claims to be using non-GMO ingredients since the beginning. Described by Serious Eats as a “decently balanced ketchup” which is “a little too thin” in its texture, Del Monte ketchup still falls short in comparison to Heinz. A taste test by Serious Eats concludes that Heinz ketchup still tops the list with its organic version. Their regular Heinz ketchup, described as having a “familiar essential ketchupiness”, comes in second.
A sweet and tangy sauce with tomatoes as its main ingredient. It is usually used as a condiment, eaten with fast food. In Asia, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, ketchup is also used as an ingredient to add flavour to noodles or rice.
Tomatoes, vinegar, sugar (or high fructose corn syrup), and spices.