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If you don’t see a bottle of ketchup on your table at an American restaurant, odds are that all you have to do is ask.  Ketchup is the most commonly used condiment in the United States, and due in no small part to the prevalence of fast food to other countries, its popularity is growing worldwide.  So how did America come up with this popular culinary and cultural export?

They didn’t.  The origins of ketchup are actually Chinese.  Specifically the earliest ketchup started in Taiwan, in the 17th century.  In the Amoy dialect of Chinese, spoken in parts of Taiwan, the word was kê-chiap, and it described a sauce made from pickled fish and spices.  Over the next century, the sauce became popular all over the region, served as a popular condiment on tables as far away as Singapore and Indonesia.  In fact, it was in Indonesia where Europeans picked up the habit, as well as the word.  The English word ketchup (or catsup) comes directly from the Indonesian word kecap (pronounced |ˌke ʧɑp|, or KAY-chap).

It might seem unlikely that the Chinese would invent a tomato-based condiment, since tomatoes were indigenous to the New World, and in the 17th century, it was still widely believed by Europeans that tomatoes were poisonous.  It’s not likely that the Chinese would have an opinion on tomatoes at all, since the Chinese weren’t the ones exploring the New World, much less trading with it.  So of course, the original ketchup recipe didn’t have any tomatoes in it at all.  The word ketchup implied fish, and while the early recipes usually used fish, fish was never essential.

When the idea was brought to England, the recipe changed drastically.  Fish were seldom, if ever used in the new recipes.  English ketchup was predominantly a mushroom-based sauce with onions or shallots included, plus salt and other spices.  Even a variety of walnut ketchup got traction in England.  Ketchup could, in the 18th century, mean any number of thin, dark sauces that are used as a condiment.

Tomato ketchup made its debut in the American colonies in 1801.  (At least, that’s when the first known recipe for tomato ketchup appeared, in a popular cookbook called The Sugar House Book.)  This recipe was quite a departure from the sauce’s origins, abandoning fish altogether.  If you’re curious, give it a try and make your own batch.

1. Get [the tomatoes] quite ripe on a dry day, squeeze them with your hands till reduced to a pulp, then put half a pound of fine salt to one hundred tomatoes, and boil them for two hours.
2. Stir them to prevent burning.
3. While hot press them through a fine sieve, with a silver spoon till nought but the skin remains, then add a little mace, 3 nutmegs, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper to taste.good for two or three years.
4 .Boil over a slow fire till quite thick, stir all the time.
5. Bottle when cold.
6. One hundred tomatoes will make four or five bottles and keep

Other early recipes for tomato ketchup persisted in using fish, but gradually, fish fell away, with sugar and vinegar taking over as the main performers in the condiment (after tomatoes, of course).  Commercially-produced mushroom ketchup and tomato ketchup shared shelf space in American stores for much of the 19th century, but eventually, tomato ketchup got the upper hand.  H. J. Heinz introduced their celebrated tomato ketchup in 1876.  Heinz had incredible success with it; it’s currently their best-known product.  Heinz dominates ketchup sales, controlling over 80% of the American ketchup market, and about 60% of the British market.  

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Mushroom ketchup: not currently one of Heinz's 57 varieties.

Most people don’t think of varieties of ketchup today; it almost seems redundant for a bottle to read “tomato ketchup”, since that seems redundant.  But while tomatoes might dominate the modern version of the sauce, its domination is not total.  Mushroom ketchup is still available in stores, if you know where to look (though you’d probably have slightly better luck in England than in America).  And in the Philippines, banana ketchup is fairly popular, and you can find it most anywhere there’s a significant Filipino expat population.  Banana ketchup was invented during World War II, originally to fill the void left by a tomato shortage in the Philippines, but when the tomato shortage was over, banana ketchup remained popular.

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From China to Indonesia to England to America to the Philippines: banana ketchup is yet another original take on the famous table sauce.

There’s no reason that ketchup couldn’t be made from other things, either.  It might possibly already be done; I’d be most interested to learn about them.  And if you’re feeling inventive, why not brainstorm in your own kitchen and see what you can come up with?  There are no rules for what constitutes ketchup.  Arguably, there never really have been!


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