There’s Something Fishy About the Ketchup You Put On Your Burgers

The red stuff that Americans eat on their French Fries doesn’t look much like the ‘kôechiap’ it’s based on

Although ketchup has roots in Southeast Asia, tomato ketchup may be an American original. Pixabay

Ketchup travelled a long way before it came to America, and went through many changes on the journey.

The sweet red sauce has its roots in a fish seasoning that’s part of cuisine in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines among other countries, according to linguist Dan Jurafsky. At different times and places, ketchup included ingredients as different as mushrooms, walnuts and elderberries, while tomatoes are a relatively recent addition, he writes.

Its name–ketchup or catsup depending on your linguistic preference–is rooted in Hokkien Chinese. “Depending on how it is translated, ketchup's predecessor was known as ke-tchup, kôechiap or kê-tsiap,” writes Lakshmi Gandhi for NPR’s CodeSwitch. The fermented fish sauce originally known by this name was succeeded by a fermented vegetable paste that had a variety of local names: these two sauces gave birth to ketchup.

Ke-tchup would make the journey westward when it was brought back to Europe by Dutch and English sailors in the 1600s,” Gandhi writes. “Now known as ‘ketchup’ or ‘catsup’ in English, the sauce was appealing to the traders and sailors for a number of reasons, one of which was that it was well-preserved and could keep for several months without spoiling.”

But ketchup wasn’t just popular with sailors, she writes. In time, the public–who didn’t have refrigeration any more than sailors did–got a taste for the flavorful condiment. Recipes for homemade ketchup abounded. The first English record of ketchup (or “katchup,” because standardized spelling is boring) appeared in The Compleat Housewife, a massively popular 1727 cookbook by Eliza Smith that went through a number of reprints.

Ingredients in Smith’s recipe included: anchovies, shallots, vinegar, ginger and nutmeg It instructed cooks to shake the bottle of their concoction once or twice a day for a week before using it. Recipes for fermented ketchups made primarily of ingredients like mushrooms and walnuts were common in 1700s Britain, Jurafsky writes. Jane Austen, for instance, is remembered as having a particular taste for mushroom ketchup.

Tomatoes were only added to the mix after ketchup came to America. In 1742, The Compleat Housewife was the first cookbook ever printed in the American colonies, according to American food history expert Jan Longone. Some time after that, an enterprising soul added tomatoes to the mix.

Tomatoes weren’t a big favorite in early America, writes Sara Bir for Modern Farmer. Although colonists who came from continental Europe were familiar with the fruit, which is thought to have originated in South America, British colonists were suspicious of tomatoes and they weren’t widely eaten. Still, in 1812, according to Jasmine Wiggins for National Geographic, the first recipe for tomato ketchup was published.

Unlike the thin brown sauce produced by mushrooms, anchovies and walnuts, tomato ketchup didn’t keep as well. Cue ketchup’s eventual transition away from fermentation to the vinegar, salt and sugar-heavy concoction we know today.

Commercial ketchups started to be produced in the 1820s, writes Rachel Swaby for Gizmodo. But the condiment didn’t take off until after the Civil War popularized commercially premade foods. Heinz started producing ketchup in 1876, and it grew to be the one of most popular condiments in America.

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