America, we can make room for non-tomato ketchups

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Hot damn, do I love trying new dipping sauces. And a glance at the multiplying variety of condiments on supermarket shelves over the years proves I’m not alone.

Gone are the days of Americans reacting like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction at the mention of dunking fries in mayo or any of its aioli cousins. In professional kitchens, mayonnaise is the creamy foundation on which to build as many signature dips and spreads as chefs can envision. There’s also the domestic proliferation of the smooth, tart, endorphin-exploding pleasure bomb that is Japanese Kewpie mayo, which is perfect sans mix-ins.

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Fifteen years ago in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell made a similar observation about mustard. For decades, the iridescent-yellow ballpark stuff was the only option for consumers. Today, stores carry a full lineup of dijons, charcuterie-board-ready coarse-grain styles, German imports, and mustards featuring infusions like jalapeño, horseradish, and sweet onion. (I’ll put a word in for Koops’ Arizona Heat, an addicting albeit kind-of-sugary version.)

So why hasn’t there been a similar evolution for ketchup?

Even suggesting there’s a need for one is blasphemy in some circles. Last year, on an episode of The Doughboys podcast, comedian and ketchup purist Ike Barinholtz put it simply: “There’s only one type of ketchup: Heinz ketchup. If you’re serving anything else, you’re doing it wrong.” It was a sentiment echoed by co-host Nick Wiger (though not by The Takeout).

Likewise, back when Milk Street’s Christopher Kimball was still with Cook’s Illustrated, he opened an America’s Test Kitchen taste-test segment about ketchup with an admonishment of the entire idea of improving it beyond the ubiquitous reference points everyone already knows and loves:

“There’s a small Irish pub right near America’s Test Kitchen where I often eat lunch. They make their own ketchup, which I’m supposed to love...but I don’t love it. I’d prefer to get the stuff out of the bottle.”

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And when The Man Who Ate Everything author Jeffrey Steingarten set out to rate 35 brands of tomato ketchup with his wife (a task that required 10 orders of French fries), they categorized each bottle into four telling categories: Worse Than Heinz, Heinz, Better Than Heinz, and Not Really Ketchup.

It’s pretty obvious that Americans have a low tolerance for people attempting to mess with their childhood ketchup. But here’s the thing: Heinz isn’t going anywhere, nor are its incrementally better and worse tomato ketchup competitors. When Gladwell chronicled one company’s doomed attempt at approving upon Heinz, he was writing in a pre-Sriracha, pre-gochujang, pre-kombucha America. Simply put, consumers today aren’t as afraid of umami and funk as they used to be, and I think we’d be open to sampling some of the fermented non-tomato ketchups of the world, which have been around almost as long as soy and fish sauce.

Beet ketchup, for example, tastes way brighter, fresher, and more vegetal than any tomato ketchup. Paired with goat cheese and caramelized onions, it’s really spectacular, and builds upon other flavors instead of steamrolling them. I get mine from Bushel & Peck at my local farmers market, and The Beet Lady’s organic line is also a tasty, if thinner, alternative.

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As an affordable substitute to products made with expensive tomato imports, banana ketchup is a ubiquitous restaurant and household staple in the Philippines. There, it’s often paired with the predictable burgers and fries, but also fried chicken and fried fish—it’s even used to top pasta.

My chef-buddy Jopet Lanzar, who grew up in the Philippines, recalls a number of brands being everywhere during his youth. “Papa is more on the sweet side. You have Jufran, which is more on the vinegar side; and then you have UFC, which is more on the kind-of-spicy side.”

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Lanzar compares the Filipino relationship to banana ketchup with the way Americans consume packets of Maruchan Ramen Noodles. “If you’re hungry and you don’t have money,” he says, “you can buy a pound of rice and and [a bottle of] banana ketchup, and that can last you a week.” It’s a foodstuff linked with poverty, he notes, but also nostalgia. Domestically, it can be found at Asian grocery stores for less than a buck a bottle. The more gelatinous texture and savory banana flavor takes some getting used to, but it really is worth checking out.

Imitation ketchup uses ingredients such as carrots, apple cider vinegar, and tart cherries to provide people who have nightshade allergies with a condiment that resembles the real thing. I personally find the one I tried from KC Natural revolting, like an uncanny, Pet Sematary-ironic twist on tomato ketchup. It’s gritty, like a superfine applesauce, tastes too strongly of onion powder, and quickly separates between solids and pooled liquids.

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More intriguing to me is the existence of currygewürzketchup, or curry ketchup from Germany, the elusive and seemingly extinct walnut ketchup, and mushroom ketchup from Great Britain, which is still made commercially by Geo Watkins.

In his book Pure Ketchup: A History Of America’s National Condiment, author Andrew F. Smith chronicles even more curious 18th and 19th century recipes for non-tomato ketchups, including “lemon catchup” (1837), “mustapha ketchup” made from ox liver (1870), anchovy-based “mum catchup” (1771), and “raspberry catchup” (1914), which combines berries with cider vinegar, mustard seed, cinnamon and ginger.

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When I reached out to Nicole Kulwicki, director of marketing for the Heinz brand, to ask about non-tomato ketchups, she was quick to point out that—strictly speaking—there is no such thing as non-tomato ketchups in the US, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s standards of identity. “Technically, any sauce containing more than just tomatoes is not ketchup. Also, the thickness of the sauce and the way it flows is actually regulated by law,” referring to the Bostwick Consistometer test, which times ketchups’ speeds flowing down a marble race-type ramp. Really.

A source I followed up with at the FDA explained on background that product labels are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. “We require food labeling to be truthful and not misleading.” That, in part, probably accounts for why non-tomato “ketchup” hasn’t seen the same evolution as mayonnaise and mustard on store shelves.

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But there’s no rule outlawing chefs and home cooks from experimenting with vintage recipe ketchups—and if any are innovative enough to serve me some walnut ketchup, I’ll be the first in line, basket of fries in hand.

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