- Ketchup, one of America’s favorite condiments made famous by Heinz, originated in Asia.
- We typically think of ketchup as a thick, tomato-based sauce, but it actually started as a thin soy sauce made from fermented fish.
- Andrew Smith, author of “Pure Ketchup” and a professor of food studies at The New School, explains how ketchup evolved into the red sauce it is today.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Ketchup, it’s everywhere in the US. 97% of Americans have a bottle in their fridge. It’s the sauce we put on our hamburgers, our hot dogs, and our french fries. But the story of ketchup actually begins in Asia.
We think of ketchup as a thick red sauce, but it was something pretty different in the beginning. It originated as a thin soy sauce made from fermented fish most likely from a region called Tonkin, or in what we call Vietnam today. It was common throughout Southeast Asia in the 17th century. Ketchup was called kêtsiap, a Chinese word from the Amoy dialect that translates to “brine of pickled fish.”
Andrew Smith: I look at that and say, “How is it possible that this little product that starts in Indonesia goes to UK, comes to the US, and then, all of a sudden spread across this world.” The British had a colony in what is today Indonesia, and it is there that they first ran into the word kêtsiap, which meant to them soy sauce. Many other people visited them, they fell in love with soy sauce, and they would like to take the idea back to England. The problem was there were no soybeans growing in England at the time, so they began to experiment. “So rather than soybeans, let’s do mushrooms.” So they had mushroom ketchup. “Let’s do fish.” And so they had fish ketchup. And they said, “Let’s do beans, so let’s have bean ketchup.” So it became a long series of products that did not include tomatoes. So it really was something that was common and did not have a specific meaning other than it was a main product that was spiced.
Narrator: There are no rules for how the spell the word ketchup or for what defines it, so cooks experimented with a variety of ingredients to season meat, fish, bread, whatever needed flavor. Andrew Smith’s book, “Pure Ketchup,” contains 50 different historical ketchup recipes including Eliza Smith’s 1727 recipe which was the first one published in English. Some of the listed ingredients are anchovies, shallots, white wine vinegar, white wine, mace, ginger, cloves, peppers, a nutmeg, a lemon peel, and horseradish. So what happened to all those varieties of ketchup? Tomatoes. The 1812 recipe from James Mease is the first appearance of tomatoes in ketchup. But wait, what about Heinz, the ketchup we know and love?
Smith: H.J. Heinz was in the right place at the right time with the right product. So in one sense, it was just pure luck that he had a good product at the time that french fries came in, at the time that hot dogs came in, at the time that hamburgers came in. And it very quickly took over the market and it has dominated the market for the last 100 years.
Narrator: While tomato-based ketchup is the most common now, there are still specialty versions with spinach, carrots and butternut squash, cinnamon and cloves, jalapenos, Vindaloo spices, bacon, and truffles. So the next time you grab that bottle of ketchup, remember it wasn’t always tomato-based, and it traveled the world before it got to you.
Smith: Oh, look at that. It sticks. It doesn’t drip off. Let me have another one here to make sure the quality is as good as it should be.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in October 2018.