Where Did Ketchup Come From?
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Posted on 17 Aug 2012 05:10

It would be easy to assume that ketchup was invented by some food company, like Heinz. That isn't true, although Heinz does have something to do with how we know it today.

American style ketchup, which is mostly thickened tomato sauce and corn syrup, could certainly be seen as an invention, but the idea comes from an older tradition.

The word ketchup is derived from a Chinese word, ke-tsiap. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ke-tsiap is from the Amoy dialect of Chinese and means a brine of pickled fish.

This was, essentially, a spicy fish sauce and shared culinary traditions with garum. Both were ways to preserve fish. Since it was wet and humid in Asia, drying fish was not practical. Preserving fish in a liquid made more sense. It may have come from the Chinese community of northern Vietnam, then called Tonkin (Tonquin), where fermented fish sauces fit with the wet and humid conditions.

Some sources claim that the sauce spread to Malaysia by the 1700's where British explorers discovered it and brought it back to England.

There are indications, however, that ketchup was imported into Britain before 1680 and Indonesia was the most likely contact point. Today, in Indonesia, sauces called kecap (formerly ketjap) can refer to any sauce but usually refer to a fermented black soybean sauce with a roasted cassava flour. There is also kecap asin, salty soy sauce; kecap manis, sweetened soy sauce; kecap ikan, a brown salty fish sauce; and kecap putih, a white soy sauce.


Indonesian Ketchup, kecap manis and kecap asin

Kecap Manis and Kecap Asin
Image by Jdmtdktdht via wikimedia

Indonesian Ketchup, kecap manis and kecap asin

Kecap Manis and Kecap Asin
Image by Jdmtdktdht via wikimedia



On a side-note, various sources also suppose that the word ketchup (catsup, catchap) also has something to do with the Chinese (Hokkien/Amoy?) word for tomato juice, which is said to be k'e chap. This sounds like hokum, pardon the pun, since tomatoes weren't even introduced into Asia until at least the 17th century, or even much later, according to some sources. The problem is that Chinese sources seem to suppose a much earlier introduction, way back in the 16th century, which would leave you to think that the Cantonese, at least, had been using tomatoes right as the ketchup sauce was being introduced into the West. This seems highly unlikely. It would have taken a while to gain any ground.

In fact, tomato juice, as opposed to purees of tomato, didn't even come about until around 1917, and it took until at least 1924 for tomato juice to be successfully canned. The idea that our word for ketchup could have come from a Chinese word for tomato juice is fishy. It is often a fallacy to assume that the modern meaning of a word has anything much to do with its etymon. That is, it is tempting to think that a theory tracing our modern word ketchup back to a word for "tomato sauce" should automatically hold more credence than one that traces it to a generic sauce.


old Columbia Catsup magazine advertisement from 1899

Columbia Catsup ad from 1899

old Columbia Catsup magazine advertisement from 1899

Columbia Catsup ad from 1899



Also, we have to realize that the attempt to phonetically render Chinese words into English produces many spellings that appear to be different words. There are a wide range of Romanization forms in use, and there is no standard to call on. Therefore, trying to research Cantonese words via Romanized spellings is an exercise in SNAFU.

The word in question here is really the word that could be spelled as keh-tsap. It just so happens that this is the Cantonese word for tomato sauce. The word for tomato sauce in Mandarin is faan-tsie-je (fan ch'ieh), which loosely translates into "foreign eggplant." That sounds different, right?

Well, the "keh" part of the Cantonese is a shortened form of the word for tomato, which is faan-ké. But the Cantonese word for eggplant is ké-jí. Notice the ? The tomato, again, was recognized as a foreign relation to the eggplant, which the Chinese had known for centuries. You can see that the Cantonese and Mandarin words, then, really aren't that dissimilar. A word for a sauce of tomatoes could not have come about until after "ketchup" as a sauce had already been introduced into Europe. Therefore, what we have seems like an improbable coincidence; but a coincidence it seems to be. Or, perhaps we simply need to figure out how the Cantonese word for tomato came about.

Nick Yee, in this article on ketchup's origin, supposes that faan-keh-tsap would be the word for a "more traditional" kind of sauce (tomato?) and the shortened form keh-tsap, a word for ketchup as Americans know it. But how "traditional" could a tomato sauce be in Asia? The idea of an ancient tomato sauce in China is just not credible. A sauce that perhaps has to do with eggplant probably is, however. And indeed, the suffix faan (rendered fàan) can mean foreign in Cantonese! Therefore, faan-ké simply means foreign eggplant just as fan ch'ieh means the same thing in Mandarin. It's not such a mystery after all. The modern use of the sauce word having to do with a tomato may have originally stemmed from something having to do with an eggplant. This makes the coincidence less hard to swallow. Other than coincidence, we could suppose that the Cantonese word "re-borrowed" from English to describe a tomato based sauce, but this is pure speculation. The lesson here is not only to consider the language, but the history of the product (tomato) itself and there is no way that the word for the sauce ketchup or catsup could have come from a Cantonese word for tomato sauce.

Early British versions of ketchup differed greatly from the original fish sauces of Asia, which themselves had no standard recipe, but were quite simple in comparison, and basically involved throwing smaller or unused fish into a salty brine.

The first known publication of a recipe in the English language was in E. Smith's The Compleat Housewife, in 1727. This version used ten to twelve anchovies, shallots, white wine vinegar, two varieties of white wine, and many spices including mace, ginger, cloves, pepper, nutmeg and horseradish. This recipe was reprinted many times in the 18th and 19th centuries.


early ketchup advertisement 1898 Blue Label Ketchup

Early Ketchup Ad for Blue Label Ketchup of New York
An early competitor of Heinz along with
Green Label Ketchup of New Jersey

early ketchup advertisement 1898 Blue Label Ketchup

Early Ketchup Ad for Blue Label Ketchup of New York
An early competitor of Heinz along with
Green Label Ketchup of New Jersey



This "English" version of the sauce seems to have nothing much to do with the Asian fish sauces, despite a few of the spices having come from Southeast Asia.

Another printed recipe actually did originate in Southeast Asia and was written by Richard Bradley in the 1732 edition of Country Gentleman and Farmer's Monthly Director. This was not a sauce but a "Ketchup in Paste" made with kidney beans to replace soy beans and many spices. It could be mixed with water to make a sauce as needed but it would not have held for very long, having no method of preservation. Bradley indicated, however, that it originated in "Bencoulin in the East Indies" which was a British settlement on Sumatra since 1684.

This was not the earliest printed mention of the term itself, however. The word catchup appeared in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, where it was defined as a high East-India sauce. This makes sense since Indonesia used to be referred to as the East Indies.

Another reference, in 1711, appeared in Account of the Trade in India by Charles Lockyer, who wrote: Soy comes in Tubbs from Japan, and the best ketchup comes from Tonquin, yet good of both sorts are made and sold very cheap in China.

Since tomatoes were considered poisonous, it was not made with tomatoes early on, and mushroom, walnut, and fish ketchups were common. Probably the only modern sauce that could give you an idea of the kinds of sauces these were is Worcestershire sauce.

Tomato plants are from the deadly nightshade family so it makes sense to fear the fruit. However, only the tomato plant is poisonous, not the fruit. It is often said that Thomas Jefferson helped to mend the bad reputation of tomatoes, since he loved and popularized them. Regardless, it was not until the 1790's that tomatoes came to be used in ketchup. Tomato ketchup became popular but it was not the only contender for the throne. Mushroom, walnut, and fish ketchups were still more popular in the states until the mid 1800's and in Britain up to the twentieth century. Besides mushrooms or walnuts, various ingredients were used to produce ketchups at first, including pickled oysters, cucumbers, and berries.


old time bottle of mushroom ketchup, circa 1830

Old-time bottle of Mushroom Ketchup
Image via wikimedia

old time bottle of mushroom ketchup, circa 1830

Old-time bottle of Mushroom Ketchup
Image via wikimedia



Since homemade tomato ketchup was so difficult to make, requiring hours to cook down the initial watery slurry, which had to be stirred constantly, Henry J. Heinz "came to the rescue" with pre-cooked bottled ketchup. The Heinz company still sells more than half the ketchup sold in the U.S. and it is hardly ever made at home anymore, however, the company, despite popular belief, was not the very first to produce commercial ketchup. Mushroom and walnut ketchup had been bottled in England much earlier and bottled tomato ketchup appeared in America at least as early as 1830 and many other bottled ketchups were sold before Heinz and Noble came on the scene, producing tomato and walnut ketchups in 1872, before going bankrupt and reemerging eventually as the H.J. Heinz company. Tomato ketchup did not become an important product for the company until the 1880's when Heinz began patenting ketchup bottles.

The sweet sauce we know today bears no relationship, save the name, to it's culinary origins.

You can read a comprehensive history of the condiment in Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment, with Recipes by Andrew F. Smith. It's amazing that ketchup can fill an entire book!

Ketchup versus Catsup

The debate over the proper spelling of the word is quite silly, since, as you can see, it has been spelled many different ways through the years (many more than have been mentioned in this article). For some reason, more manufactures seem to use the term catsup, which probably started as the aforementioned catchup. In the late 1800's to early 1900's, there were more competing brands than there are today, such as Van Kamp's, Beech-Nut, Del Monte, and Columbia, all of which used catsup.

Ketchup is the most preferred spelling today, probably due to the success of the Heinz brand, but it cannot be said that one way is more correct in terms of etymology.

References
1. Smith, Andrew F. Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment, with Recipes. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1996.
2. Walker, Harlan. Fish: Food from the Waters : Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1997. Totnes: Prospect, 1998.
Various sundry sources were also used. Various Sources on Cantonese grammar were also used.

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