Is ketchup the world’s favourite sauce? Maybe so, considering it’s found in most of our homes and on innumerable culinary delights each day. But there’s more to this sauce than hamburgers and hot dogs. In fact, ketchup has a storied past that dates back to imperial China—something to think about next time you coax the perfect dollop out of a reluctant bottle.
Believe it or not, the ancestor of modern ketchup was completely tomato-free. Though tomato plants were brought to England from South America in the 1500s, their fruits weren’t eaten for centuries since people considered them poisonous. Instead, the precursor to our ketchup was a fermented fish sauce from southern China. As far back as 300 B.C., texts began documenting the use of fermented pastes made from fish entrails, meat by products and soy beans. The fish sauce, called “ge-thcup” or “koe-cheup” by speakers of the Southern Min dialect, was easy to store on long ocean voyages. It spread along trade routes to Indonesia and the Philippines, where British traders developed a taste for the salty condiment by the early 1700s. They took samples home and promptly corrupted the original recipe.
The 19th century was a golden age for ketchup. Cookbooks featured recipes for ketchups made of oysters, mussels, mushrooms, walnuts, lemons, celery and even fruits like plums and peaches. Usually, components were either boiled down into a syrup-like consistency or left to sit with salt for extended periods of time. Both these processes led to a highly concentrated end product: a salty, spicy flavour bomb. One oyster ketchup recipe called for 100 oysters, three pints of white wine and lemon peels spiked with mace and cloves. The commemorative “Prince of Wales” ketchup, meanwhile, was made from elderberries and anchovies. Finally, in 1812, the first recipe for tomato ketchup made its debut. James Mease, a Philadelphia scientist, wrote that the choicest ketchup came from “love apples,” as they were then called.
Mushrooms, nuts, oysters, tomatoes—what exactly do all these foods share? The common denominator is umami, the savoury fifth taste only recently acknowledged by Western scientists. That delicious meatiness you savour when eating a perfectly ripe tomato occurs naturally in mushrooms, nuts and fermented or aged products like fish, cheeses and meats. Umami also happens to be a pleasant, all-natural substitute—or, some might say, euphemism—for the much-maligned food additive MSG. Just as some Chinese restaurants add a white powder to food to intensify taste, people across the globe were creating natural flavour boosts in the form of ultra-condensed ketchups.