Amuse Our Bouche is The A.V. Club’s column that answers your burning, boiling, and flambéed food questions.
One of my shameful secrets as a lover of dips and sauces is that I do not like ketchup. This puts me squarely in the minority in America—ketchup is found in 97 percent of American households. American consumption of french fries and ketchup, in fact, is so high that it skews vegetable consumption data: A third of all vegetables consumed by Americans are potatoes, and a fifth are tomatoes, with 15 percent of all tomato consumption attributed to ketchup. (That’s right, Americans consume ketchup so much that we’ve tricked ourselves into counting it as a vegetable.)
Although we use the word “ketchup” without a second thought, if you stop and examine it, it’s a peculiar word with seemingly no root in Western languages. In fact, the etymology of the word has been disputed by historical linguists. And as with many American traditions, its roots extend far beyond the Western world.
To understand how globalization and international trade led to the creation of ketchup as we know it, go back to ancient Chinese times, when fermented fish and bean pastes were first used to flavor foods. Both processes led to modern-day fish sauce and soy sauce. According to food scholar Naomichi Ishige in Fish Fermentation Technology, the relative cheapness of fermented bean products eventually replaced fish fermentation in China altogether, and fish sauces disappeared for a while. Then, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Chinese sea traders from Southeast Asia reintroduced fish sauce to China in the coastal province of Fujian. Today this fish sauce is called yu lu in Mandarin, but in various dialects spoken throughout Fujian and Southeast Asia in the 18th century, the name for the sauce was ke-tchup, kôechiap, or kê-tsiap, depending on the dialect. These words translate to “fish sauce.” Some dictionaries incorrectly translate the early Hokkien words as “eggplant sauce.” Google’s dictionary proposes it’s from the Cantonese word for “tomato juice,” but tomatoes had little to do with ketchup until much later in the condiment’s history.
Chinese traders also brought fish sauce to the Philippines and Indonesia. Today the Indonesian word for sauce is kecap, but its origins are similarly traced back to fish sauce. British trading ports in Indonesia got ahold of the product, and it’s unclear whether the British traders borrowed the Indonesian word or the Hokkien Chinese word for the sauces they brought home. The first published recipe for ketchup in the Western world appeared in London in 1727 as part of Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife and referred to the sauce as “katchup.” Smith’s recipe calls for white wine vinegar, shallots, anchovies, ginger, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, and horseradish.
So up to this point, tomatoes still hadn’t entered ketchup’s history. By the mid-18th century, ketchup was popular in England, but referred broadly to any type of spiced sauce. Mushroom ketchup, walnut ketchup, anchovy ketchup, and oyster ketchup all became popular takes on the condiment during the late 18th century and early 19th century in Europe, along with ketchups made from fruits such as peaches, lemons, and plums. Jane Austen’s friend Martha Lloyd documented how the Austen family made walnut ketchup from green walnuts, salt, vinegar, cloves, mace, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, horseradish, and shallots in A Jane Austen Household Book. These early, Westernized versions of ketchup, which also sometimes involved beer in the fermentation process, were often amber or even dark brown in color, looking and tasting more like the fish sauces from which they came than the mild tomato-based sauce that’s served alongside French fries and in burgers.
A recipe for ketchup made from tomatoes didn’t appear until 1812, with Philadelphia scientist James Mease’s concoction. Tomatoes were already more popular in North America than in England, due to the prevailing misconception in Europe that tomatoes were poisonous. This myth trickled into America’s perception of tomatoes, but tomato advocates like Mease—who called them “love apples”—pushed back. Even more devoted to the cause was Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson, who in 1820, stood on the steps of Salem, New Jersey’s courthouse and consumed an entire basket of tomatoes to prove they were safe to consume. Public perception of tomatoes shifted dramatically during the Civil War in America, when they became even more popular and were even considered to have medicinal purposes.
In 1869, the H.J. Heinz Company was formed and began selling horseradish. In 1876, the company started selling its first tomato ketchup products, and in 1882, company founder Henry J. Heinz started to patent the company’s glass ketchup bottles. With its long glass neck and white twist-off cap, the bottle is an icon in the condiment world yet notoriously difficult to extract ketchup from once it’s anything less than full. Perhaps you’ve never noticed that these bottles are labeled “tomato ketchup,” a signifier that means little to us but which distinguished the product from other ketchups still being made in American homes. Heinz also introduced a higher sugar content to the recipe in order to better preserve it. Gradually, ketchup lost some of its bolder flavors and began taking on that sweet quality we’re accustomed to today.
It’s a distant relative of the fish sauces that sparked it, but Southeast Asia’s etymological influence remains. In a company statement from Heinz to China Daily in 2013, the ketchup giant acknowledged the Chinese roots of the word. The statement also noted that Henry Heinz chose to spell the product as “ketchup” in order to stand out among competitors that spelled it “catsup.” While it’s sometimes assumed that the “ketchup” and “catsup” spellings vary regionally, they were used interchangeably during ketchup’s rise in the West, along with more variations including “catchup,” all reflecting Western attempts to spell out the early Hokkien words in the English alphabet.
Tomato ketchup as we know it might be distinctly American, but its name has a more complex history. Still, other parts of the world beat us when it comes to making delicious ketchup. On that note, all of ketchup’s early variations sound much more enticing to me than sugary tomato paste, so I’m off to mash some mushrooms and anchovies.