In the U.S., 97 percent of households report having a bottle at the table. But Ketchup’s origins are anything but American.
In the 17th century, the Chinese mixed a concoction of pickled fish and spices and called it (in the Amoy dialect) kôe-chiap or kê-chiap (鮭汁) meaning the brine of pickled fish (鮭, salmon; 汁, juice) or shellfish. By the early 18th century, the sauce had made it to Mayalasia and Indonesia, where they were known by the names kechap and ketjap respectively.
Yep, the original ketchup was fish sauce, the stinky cooking sauce called nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, and made from salting and fermenting anchovies. English explorers took samples home and immediately made it their own. Naturally, they added beer.
A Very British Ketchup
Most British recipes used mushrooms, walnuts, oysters, or anchovies in an effort to imitate the savoury tastes first encountered in Asia. Walnut ketchup was supposedly a favourite of Jane Austen. One oyster 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. These early ketchups were mostly thin and dark, and were often added to soups, sauces, meat and fish. At this point, ketchup lacked one important ingredient – Tomato.
The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink notes that tomato ketchup may have been invented in the United States, which is logical because the tomato is native to North America. Europeans were hesitant to use tomatoes in ketchup (or any cooking at all) because the fruit was believed to be poisonous, which led to more than a century going by before the first tomato ketchup was created.
Coal Tar and Ketchup
Even America didn’t realize until the 1830s that tomatoes could be delicious. In 1820, a tomato advocate Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey, stood on the steps of the local courthouse and consumed an entire basket of tomatoes to prove they weren’t poisonous. In 1834, an Ohio physician named Dr. John Cook Bennett declared tomatoes to be a universal panacea that could be used to treat diarrhea, violent bilious attacks, and indigestion. Pretty soon, Bennett was publishing recipes for tomato ketchup, which were then concentrated into pill form and sold as a patent medicine across the country.
In fact, commercial ketchups in the 19th century were dangerous. To prevent the ketchup from moldering, ketchup makers filled their batches with harmful preservatives, including boric acid, formalin, salicylic acid, and benzoic acid. Coal tar was added to dye the ketchup red! In a study of commercial ketchups conducted in 1896, 90% were found to contain “injurious ingredients” that could lead to death.
This was the sorry state of ketchup when Henry J. Heinz released his first bottle in 1876. By 1906, Heinz was producing five million bottles of preservative-free ketchup every year.