You might think that ketchup is one of the most American condiments you own. You probably grew up putting ketchup on your eggs (and maybe on cottage cheese) and staining all of your white shirts. Ninety-seven percent of American households have it in their fridges, and Heinz sells 10 billion ounces of ketchup per year. To put that in perspective, that’s three bottles per American per year. But like so many other items on your table, ketchup (or “catsup” if you want to take it there) was something the US originally imported from England. And its roots go back much further than that: Ketchup is a product of British colonialism.
Have you ever wondered why Heinz isn’t just called "ketchup”? It’s specifically labeled as “tomato ketchup,” even though the tomato part is clearly visible through their glass and plastic bottles. Ketchup, like many of our favorite foods, was adopted from another culture. It was a popular fermented fish sauce from China's southern Fujian province and is derived from the Hokkien Chinese word ke-tchup, kôechiap, or kê-tsiap. The most likely botched pronunciation of the word is how we got “catsup” and “catchup,” but how did we get from fish to tomato?
Back in the 17th century, English and Dutch merchants discovered the fermented fish sauce in “East-India” (which today is South and Southeast Asia), and it quickly became a hot commodity on local and international trade routes because it was delicious and cheap to make and distribute. The pervasive and delicious nuoc mam (fish sauce) in Vietnamese food is a close cousin to the original ketchup as a result. But the cost of importing the sauce all the way to the UK was high, so British cooks tried to recreate it at a lower cost.
“Catchup” or “Katchup” became a fishy, mushroom- and shallot-based chutney, and later came to connote any dark sauce made from mushrooms or walnuts. Jane Austen was a big fan, and her friend Martha Lloyd even kept a record of how much Jane loved it while she lived with the Austen family in Chawton. It would have been similar to Worcestershire sauce, and was made with unripe walnuts, vinegar, cloves, mace, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, horseradish, and shallots.
By the early 19th century, oyster and walnut ketchups had become quite popular, but it wasn’t until 1812 when Philadelphia-based scientist James Mease decided tomatoes and ketchup sounded like a great pair. In America, ketchup, unfortunately, became a sauce made of tomatoes and anchovies (an apparent homage to ketchup's origins). Then the ultimate American question reared its head: How can we make money off of this? People noticed that it had zero shelf life and putrefied quickly… hello, benzoates and other preservatives!
Those didn’t last too long because of health concerns brought to light by Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Wiley then joined forces with Henry J. Heinz, who had started producing ketchup in 1867. Heinz developed a recipe that used ripe tomatoes, because of the higher levels of a natural preservative called pectin, and increased the amount of vinegar, also a natural preservative. Heinz's sauce was then branded as ketchup to distinguish the brand from its competitors still selling catsup.
By the 20th century, homemade ketchups had become a thing of the past. None of them tasted quite right—as in, none of them tasted like Heinz. Since then, not much has changed for Americans who have lived their whole life thinking ketchup was just some happy American culinary coincidence. Who knew all you needed was a ripe tomato, some vinegar, and a little sugar to create a lasting brand name that would become synonymous with a condiment?