Mayonnaise, mustard, hollandaise, ranch dressing—they are all their own kind of wonderful. Yet they simply can’t hold a candle to the undisputed king of the condiments (at least in the U.S.): ketchup. But while you may slather it on your fries or your burger, how much do you know about this omnipresent sauce? Where did ketchup come from? What is ketchup made out of? While I’m tempted to answer “wishes and dreams,” that’s not technically an accurate answer, especially for the small but vocal minority of people who find ketchup to be a gross abomination of sweet tomato-y jelly, so here’s the truth.
Essentially, ketchup as we know it today is a combination of tomato concentrate, vinegar, sugar and spices. In fact, if you want to make some ketchup yourself, there are tons of recipes online, including this one from allrecipes made with crushed tomatoes, white sugar, white vinegar, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, mustard powder, black pepper and a bunch of garlic. But be warned, don’t expect your homemade ketchup to taste identical to Heinz. Though the components are there, the proprietary blend of spices and flavorings makes the number one ketchup brand what it is.
That all seems simple enough. But why is this condiment called ketchup? How did it make its way onto our plates? The answer is surprisingly complicated, but here is a quick summation. The word “ketchup” has a few possible etymologies, none of which is totally certain. One popular theory is that it comes from the Hokkien Chinese “kôe-chiap” which means “pickled brine.” If you don’t think pickled brine has a lot to do with a sweet tomato sauce, you’re not wrong. “Ketchup” (or “catsup,” the less common spelling for the same thing) used to be sort of a catch-all term for any salty table sauce. In fact, in England they initially used mushrooms in ketchup, much to the likely horror of today’s picky eating five-year-olds. If that’s not wild enough, in the 18th century you could find ketchup recipes utilizing ingredients as disparate as oysters and mussels, plums, and peaches.
The tomato version of ketchup began to appear in the early 1800s, and the invention is credited to Philadelphian scientist James Mease. Heinz introduced their now-iconic variety in 1876. The popularity of this product exploded, and since then, tomato ketchup has had relatively few changes. One exception to this is back in the ‘90s when Heinz decided to make a bunch of different colorful ketchups that absolutely no one asked for, originally as a tie-in with the movie Shrek. So, what is green ketchup made of? The answer is that it’s pretty much the same as Heinz’s regular ketchup except with added food coloring and vitamin C. While these colorful EZ-Squeeze ketchups were briefly popular, people quickly realized that multi-colored ketchup was gross and now these colorful ketchups are extinct.
Today, ketchup is a tremendously popular condiment that is almost synonymous with the USA. Yet for some reason, if you want to buy ketchup flavored chips, you have to travel all the way to Canada or the UK. Why is this? That’s a ketchup mystery for another day.
Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!