The Case for Ketchup, a Glorious Mutant (AS 258)
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
A few weeks ago, we had a crisis at home. Sofi was demanding Dino-nuggets, but we were out of ketchup. This took us by surprise. Like most households with preschoolers, we buy tons of ketchup.
That day, I decided to capitalize on the crisis. What an opportunity to teach Sofi some food history! So I put the question to her, “Do you know where ketchup is from?” Sofi grinned and without missing a beat, she proclaimed, “From tomatoes!”
Well, yes and no.
The many faces of ketchup offers some food for thought (as well as a sugar rush). Unlike many of the other culinary products that we have seen this term (for example, biryani and Central Asian plov), ketchup looks nothing like its ancestors. Think of little Sofi and her great-great-great grandfather, August Schuckman (1827-1907).
Two centuries can do a lot to the way family members look. In Sofi’s case, the Chinese, native American, and Spanish genes mellowed out that Schuckman jaw. The passing of time can also make a difference to foods: not just the way foods appear, but also how they taste. Sometimes, there can be no family resemblance whatsoever.
Ketchup represents an extreme case of how much a food can mutate. It also illuminates how those mutations can open up novel gastronomical possibilities. Yes, possibilities. If you’re skeptical, read on: I’m making a case for ketchup.
Today, our story begins not in the Americas, the original homeland of tomatoes and corn syrup, two pillars of the Columbian Exchange. Instead, the journey starts in the ancient coasts and rivers of Mainland Southeast Asia. I didn’t say China, Vietnam, or Thailand. In many cases, foods — which are often solutions to particular environments — transcend national borders. In the case of southern coastal China, its climate and natural resources resemble northern Vietnam more than northern China.
Thousands of years ago, few of the indigenous inhabitants of this larger region would have called themselves Chinese or Vietnamese. Then known as the ‘many Yue’ (or Viets), the ordinary people of the region spoke languages ancestral to modern Thai, Hmong, and Vietnamese.
The food of this part of the world was quite different from anything that we have seen thus far. Mainland Southeast Asia is rice and fish country. Unlike the lands further north, which are suitable for cultivating millet, wheat, and soybeans, this area is damp. It was a bad place to raise horses and sheep, but an area where tropical fruits like lychees and seafood abound. Think shrimp and anchovies.
The indigenous inhabitants of the region took advantage of the bounty from local waters. They realized that they could ferment aquatic fare by salting it to make a rich savory paste. Over the centuries, those pungent and savory sauces have morphed into amber-colored fish sauce, the nuoc mam of Vietnamese cooking and nam pla of Thai cuisine. (Click here for a video that shows the process).
Beginning in the tenth century AD, people from southern coastal China, from what is modern-day Fujian and Guangdong, began to migrate to Southeast Asia. Some of them, like my ancestors, landed in colonial Malaysia and Indonesia, then known by the quaint name of the East Indies. By the eighteenth century, these emigres lived in large numbers in Maritime Southeast Asia. They brought with them this ancient tradition of making brine from salted fish, which in the local Fujian dialect (Hokkein) went by the name of kê-tisap 鮭汁. In Indonesia, that sauce goes by kecap ikan, a loan word from the original southern Chinese dialect. Kecap now means ‘sauce’ more generally.
This is where the British enter the story. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard much about them yet this term, it’s because they were latecomers to Asian imperialism. But the eighteenth century was their moment. They moved into Maritime Southeast Asia, where the Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese were busy competing to take over other people's lands.
There, the English and Dutch encountered fish sauce. The British in particular took a shine to the stuff. They understood that fish sauce did wonders for making their ocean provisions (stale crackers and dried ham) more palatable. Ketchup also had another virtue: it kept forever. This was a special plus in a time before modern refrigeration.
Soon enough, everyone in London wanted ketchup. According to Dan Jurnasky, merchants made good money shipping this sauce through the Indian Ocean trade route back to merry old England. Discerning merchants knew that the best stuff came from a place in Northern Vietnam, but they also understood that the sauce could be bought cheaply from Canton and sold for a fortune back home.
The high cost — and prestige — of ketchup spurred home cooks to do a little improvising (or local adapting). English housewives began thinking of ways of getting the same umami bomb for a fraction of the cost. So they used cheaper, locally-abundant ingredients.
One recipe from the mid-eighteenth century betrays the fishy origins of ketchup. It takes a pound of anchovies, mixing it with more familiar English flavoring like strong beer, mace, cloves, pepper, ginger, shallots, and mushrooms. Other recipes, however, got more creative. They added wine and nutmeg, claiming that this aromatic and alcoholic fish mix would keep on journeys “all the way to the Indies.”
There were also nuttier options like Walnut Ketchup (1771), and shell-fish concoctions: Oyster Ketchup (1814), Mussel Ketchup (1887), Herring Ketchup (1814). Liver Ketchup (I'm really not joking).
These fishy sauces and their many knock-offs were also a hit in America. Many early American versions of ketchup remained close to their savory roots. These include recipes for Mushroom Ketchup (1728). Click on the link to see actors dressed up as colonial settlers.
The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of fruit-based ketchup. Believe it or not, the Americans weren't to blame for this -- the British did it! Peach Ketchup (1861), for example, represented a competitor to another plentiful American fruit: the tomato. Interestingly, the earliest versions of tomato ketchup were not yet cloying sweet. Home cooks still used some anchovies.
The nineteenth century was big in ketchup history. Two things happened. First Americans dropped the fish from the tomato-based sauce. Then some home cooks realized that adding a little sugar was helpful for the fermentation process. They then balanced the recipe with additional vinegar. This, of course, proved to be a slippery slope. As sugar consumption skyrocketed, Americans did a strong pour with the sugar...into the ketchup.
Then capitalism got into the action. The early twentieth century was the Era of Too Many Tomatoes. Farmers had so many tomatoes they didn’t know what to do with them. Luckily, a tycoon named Mr. Heinz took advantage of new canning and bottling technologies and turned the tomato surplus into a personal fortune. An American classic was born. Since then, American housewives have given up making their own ketchup; cherry and peach ketchup have since been relegated to the footnotes of food history.
Most historians end here with the usual warnings about tooth decay and the Americanization of the global palette. I'll end on an up-lifting note.
Our fruity mutant did not stay at home. It went to la belle France and encountered Monsieur Hermes, who put him into a ketchup macaron (this is actually real). It also followed American colonial influence and found its roots. It returned to the rivers and coasts that gave birth to its savory ancestors.
In the 1960s, sweet American ketchup started infiltrating Taiwan, an island settled by Hokkein speakers in the 1700s. The great television chef, Fu Peimei 傅培梅;(1931-2004), prepared sweet and sour pork with ketchup. She was not alone in loving the stuff. Today, people on the island commonly make a sweet and savory sauce with ketchup, which they drizzle on Taiwanese-style tempura.
Vietnamese cooks have also taken a liking to the stuff. Andrea Nyugen has begun adding ketchup to fish and shrimp sauce. She is not alone. The combination of nuoc mam and ketchup features in modern incarnations of Bún riêu, a crab, pork, and tomato noodle soup. According to Linh Trinh, a PhD student, the ketchup substitutes for more traditional Achiote Oil (Dau Mau Dieu).
In the Philippines, a former American colony, people make ketchup with local bananas (which are more plentiful than tomatoes). They add ketchup to Filipino-styled spaghetti, a dish that marries banana ketchup to fish sauce. We have come full circle.
No longer a mere knock off, ketchup has come into its own. It has even begun spawning its own mutants. Banana ketchup is just the beginning. And Sofi is curious about how it will look — and taste — after it makes another turn around the globe.
Erica F. Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities in the Southern Frontier c. 400 BCE- 50 CE (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Dan Jurnasky, The Language of Food: A Linguistic Reads the Menu (W.W. Norton, 2015).
Andrew F. Smith, Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment, with Recipes (University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 3-32.
Recipe Resources for Mainland Southeast Asia:
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Hot, Sour, Salt, Sweet: A Culinary Journal through Southeast Asia (Artisan, 2000).
David Thompson, Thai Food (Ten Speed, 2002).