Ketchup is a staple in many American households. As someone who grew up in the States, I can attest to its ubiquity and our fridge always contained at least one half-used bottle of Heinz. And we were not alone – surveys show that 97% of kitchens in the US contain a bottle. That’s a lot of ketchup! It’s clearly a household staple for many and it’s also a well-known component of American fast food (burgers and fries and ketchup).
But while I was reading Dan Jurafsky’s book The Language of Food a few weeks ago, I learned about the interesting global historical origins of American tomato ketchup, a history involving international trade, exploration and a heck of a lot of fish.
Jurafsky is an American linguist at Stanford University and his book overall looks at how the language we use to describe food has evolved, and also how the foods themselves have evolved over time. ‘A surprising history of culinary exchange-a sharing of ideas and culture as much as ingredients and flavors-lies just beneath the surface of our daily snacks, soups and suppers,’ the blurb promises. As a lover of food, language and random historical trivia that you can use to annoy people at dinner parties (just kidding, kind of), I wanted to read it. It’s a fun read and there are chapters on, for instance, ‘Why Ice Cream and Crackers Have Different Names’, but the story that really caught my eye was the history of ketchup. I couldn’t believe it had such a complex and fascinating origin! So where does ketchup come from?
Our story begins in Ancient China (bet you weren’t expecting that!)…
Thousands of years ago, the people living in Southern China had to come up with a solution to preserve the fish and shrimp they caught. So they salted and fermented the seafood into rich, savory pastes. This fermented fish became widely adopted throughout ancient China and people even started fermenting other things too (like soybeans, which led to an ancient version of miso).
Fast forward to the 16th century, when Southern China was a trade center and a bustling port region, with traders coming and going. As Fujianese traders (Fujian is a province in Southern China) and seamen set out, they took their ke-tchup (‘preserved-fish sauce’ in Hokkien – the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan) with them. These Fujinese people went to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Then British and Dutch merchants arrived to Southeast Asia, looking for spices, textiles and porcelain – things they could sell at a high price back in Europe. There, the traveling Brits and Dutch developed a taste for arrack, an early ancestor of rum (made from fermented rice together with molasses and palm wine), and also for this new food called ke-tchup.
The stuff those European sailors were eating at sea was bland (salt pork, dry crackers) so they livened it up with this new tasty sauce, bought off Chinese merchants. (There are a lot of different spellings of ketchup, by the way, as a result of the English, Dutch and Portuguese speakers trying to write down the Chinese word with our Roman alphabet. So we get ‘ke-tchup’, ‘catsup’ ‘catchup’ etc.)
By the early 18th century, the British were making and selling ketchup themselves. Charles Lockyer, a trader for the East India Company who went to Asia in 1703, writes in his Account of the Trade in India:
Soy comes in tubs from Japan, the best Ketchup from Tonqueen [Northern Vietnam]; yet good of both sorts, are made and sold very cheap in China…I know not a more profitable Commodity.
He doesn’t know ‘more profitable Commodity’!
So this guy would buy tubs and tubs of ketchup (which is still fish sauce at this point, by the way!), bottle it and sell it for high prices to rich people in England. So now ketchup has arrived to England. But because it was too expensive for ordinary people in England and the colonies to afford, people started to make their own.
Here’s a recipe that Jurafsky has found from a 1742 London cookbook, in which (Jurafsky points out), the fish sauce has already taken on a British flavor, by adding shallots (‘eschallots’) and mushrooms into the mix. But there is still fish in it – note the anchovies!
Mushrooms soon became the MAIN ingredient.
This other recipe, demonstrated by historical interpreter John Townsend on his YouTube channel, shows you an example of an 18th century ‘mushroom ketchup’.
From 1750-1850, the word ketchup meant a dark sauce typically made of mushrooms (like the one Townsend makes in the video!). So the fish is starting to fade away, but we still don’t have any tomatoes. THAT comes in in the 19th century and probably starts in Britain. Jurafsky has found a recipe from 1817 for ‘Tomato Catsup’ (and, of course, tomatoes originated in the New World, so effectively this British recipe blends a food from the Americas into a dish first invented in China).
By the mid-1850s, a uniquely American ketchup started to develop (thicker and sweeter than the British version). By the 1910’s Heinz was making and selling it. (Their spelling of ‘ketchup’ instead of ‘catsup’ also consolidated that as the most popular spelling in America). Heinz dramatically increased the amount of vinegar to preserve it longer.
So there you have it! Our modern tomato ketchup…with its origins in Ancient China.
So what does this all…mean? Like, why does this stuff matter?
Well, if you’re me, it matters simply because it’s interesting! The foods that we eat, that we might think of as typically ‘American’, for instance, are often the product of complex human migrations and a variety of factors and influences that we don’t even know about. We’re eating history. Global history, at that.
According to Jurfasky, it matters also because ‘ketchup’s history offers us new insights into global economic history’. He explains that, if you subscribe to a traditional Western model of Asian economics, China turned inward around 1450 and became isolated and economically unimportant, until the West brought Asia into the world economy in the 19th and 20th centuries. But, Jurafsky says: ‘the vast production of trade of ke-tchup (not to mention arrack and less delicious goods like textiles and porcelain) well into the eighteenth century tell a different tale’. While the Chinese government might have officially banned sea travel, these bans were ignored and Chinese sailors continued to go out and trade on a massive scale. British merchants (like our friend Charles Lockyer from before) talked of fierce competition with Chinese traders and harbors crowded with Chinese ships. China was an economic powerhouse by the late 17th century and European sailors went to Asia generally because that’s where most of the world’s trade took place. Europeans merchants flocked there to buy silks, porcelain, arrack, and ketchup.
So, in effect, every time that you put ketchup on your hamburger, you’re a part of that story. A story of European and Chinese merchants, of British cooks and American companies. A story of Ancient Chinese fisherman who wanted a way to preserve their catch of the day. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool.
Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:
- The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky (This book is a fun one to dip in and out of. I didn’t read it cover to cover, but jumped around to chapters I found interesting)
- ‘How Was Ketchup Invented?’ in The National Geographic (2014). Although this account differs in some minor details from Jurafsky’s, they are largely the same. And this one includes a modern ketchup recipe, if you want to try making it at home!
- ‘A Brief (But Global) History of Ketchup’ in Smithsonian Magazine (2018)
PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Trout, Grouse, Tomatoes’ from Robert D. Wilkie, 1877. It can be found in the Boston Public Library and I accessed it via Wikimedia.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past.
Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!