The Origins of Ketchup

The sweet and salty Indonesian fish sauce called kecap (sometimes spelled ketjap) that I spread on my noodles at Rice Bowl got me thinking about the origins of America's favorite condiment. The evolution started with Chinese ke-tsiap, a fermented fish sauce. The sweet Indonesian variation was unique in its balance of sweet, salty, sour and savory flavors. Ketjap made its way to Europe in the 1600s. English cooks experimented with mushrooms, walnuts, anchovies and oysters in their attempts to come up with an equivalent. Their efforts were known as catsups or ketchups.

Tomato ketchup was invented in the United States in the late 1700s. The first commercial varieties were made with tomato trimmings from tomato canning operations. In 1872, Henry Heinz radically changed the recipe by increasing the vinegar and sugar along with the viscosity to create the thick, sweet and sour condiment we now slather on our French fries.

When the U.S. government declared that tomato ketchup was a vegetable during the Reagan administration, companies that marketed their product under the alternate name catsup, had to redo their labels or forgo sales to school cafeterias. So the ketchup spelling became universal in the U.S.

My family came from Pittsburgh, so I grew up with Heinz. If you love ketchup, you might consider shelling out $10 for a bottle of Wilkin & Sons Limited Tipton Tomato Ketchup at the British Isles import store in Rice Village. It's made with red wine vinegar and cane sugar instead of the distilled vinegar and high fructose corn syrup used in Heinz ketchup. But frankly, the English stuff tastes too sweet to me. I prefer HP Sauce, which isn't exactly ketchup, but is close.

The other almost-ketchup I use all the time is Heinz Chili Sauce, which is essentially ketchup with some extra onions, garlic and chile pepper added. You can't make an old-fashioned oyster pan roast without Heinz Chili Sauce.

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