Food history: ketchup

Much like with the history of coffee, ketchup’s extensive background can fill an entire book. Consequently, there are details and information going far beyond this post.

But let’s go over the rundown of all major points we can on the history of ketchup.

Before ketchup was the tomato-based beloved condiment that 97% of Americans own in their home, it was a fish-based sauce, or brine. Yep – ketchup used to be fish-based.

More than 500 years ago, a Fujian province on the South China Sea was a primary center for seafaring travelers. Khmer and Vietnamese fishermen introduced the Chinese to their fish sauce, created from salted and fermented anchovies; it has also been described as a pickled fish brine.

Although texts document the use of fermented pastes from fish as far back as 300 B.C., fish brines really became popular during the early 1700s, even replacing sauces. Brines and pickled foods provided preservation in an era before proper refrigeration.

In addition to the long shelf life of ketchup, at the time, a variety of spices were readily available in England that were utilized in ketchup: mustard seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and others.

Ketchup successfully made its journey from the Fujian province to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippians. The British ended up picking up the salty delight, took samples home, and adjusted the recipe. From there, with colonists settling in what would be America, ketchup made its way to our country. 

Interestingly, ketchup was originally made with fish, as mentioned before, but also pickled mushrooms or walnuts. Apparently, the liquid from a mushroom pickle has a dark brown hue, and when flavored with spices, can become its own condiment.

While ketchup was making its voyage across the globe its name went through a few transformations as well. Ket-chup was derived from catsup and katchup, and ke-tchup initially meant “preserved fish sauce” in Vietnamese. Catsup did eventually became ketchup – officially – but more on that in a moment.

Although tomato plants made their way to England from South America during the 1500s, tomatoes were not widely eaten in Europe for many, many years. This is because people believed them to be poisonous, along with other members of the nightshade family. Hence, tomato ketchup had yet to make its debut. 

Famine in Italy led the starving folks to finally try tomatoes, and the vegetable persevered across Europe. The first Italian tomato sauce recipe came about in 1839.

The early 1800s saw a plethora of homemade ketchup recipes, with varieties including not just the aforementioned mushrooms and walnuts, but also oysters, elderberries, and beer.

Tomato ketchup came about in America. In the US, where the tomato plant is native, people were less skeptical about the fruit/vegetable being dangerous for consumption.

The first known tomato ketchup recipe came from Philadelphia’s James Mease in 1812, sparking a revolution of tomato-based ketchups. By 1896, The New York Tribune announced that tomato ketchup was America’s national condiment, and could be found “on every table in the land.”

Of course, we cannot discuss ketchup without getting into the king of all ketchups: Heinz.

As you can see, even today Heinz and other brands need to specify that their product is in fact tomato ketchup (not fish, walnut, or mushroom-based), redundant as that may seem now.

Henry J. Heinz began his enterprise in 1876 in Pittsburgh, patenting the famous ketchup bottle in 1882. By 1908, Heinz tomato ketchup sales reached $2.5 million, a completely unheard of amount of money for the time.

Interestingly, the other ketchup companies were spelling the condiment “catsup;” Heinz intentionally went the other way to make his product stand out.

As mentioned before, homemade ketchup remained quite popular during the 1800s. . .up until Heinz created his invention. By the late 1800s, everyone bought bottled and no one bothered to take the time to create ketchup at home.

And who can blame them? Making ketchup is a tedious, time-consuming process. Mass production methods eliminate that hassle.

In addition to having a different spelling, Heinz’s groundbreaking ketchup leaped to success for other reasons as well. For one, he used ripe red tomatoes instead of the green, under-ripe usually used; ripe tomatoes have more of a gelling agent, and pectin, yielding to a higher-density product.

And two, Heinz ketchup has more salt, and almost twice as much sugar (sugar wasn’t even added to ketchup in general until the mid 1800s), and also more vinegar than other ketchup products.

The formula for Heinz tomato ketchup has not been altered much over the years. When it was, it was to swap out the sugar for corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or a combination of the two.

The only other major change with Heinz ketchup is during the 1930s. An effort was enacted to breed heir own tomatoes, thus ensuring better consistency.

But what about catsup?

“Catsup” officially became “ketchup” in 1981, by word of the USDA. At the time, Heinz and Hunts spelled their products as such, but Del Monte was still using “catsup;” they had to make the change.

Also in 1981, the Reagan administration attempted to declare ketchup a vegetable. In allowing this bizarre claim, the government would be able to save money on federally-funded school lunch programs.

Because parents and nutritionists went up in arms over this idea, the proposal was shelved. In 1995, the government tried again to get people to come about to the idea of ketchup being vegetable.

Perhaps most amusing of all, is that as of April 2006, ketchup is in fact listed officially as a “canned vegetable.”

2 thoughts on “Food history: ketchup

  1. Erin, do you know the year Heinze switched to use HFCS in there product? When did they change the original recipe to swap out sugars to HFCS?

    you stated above “The formula for Heinz tomato ketchup has not been altered much over the years. When it was, it was to swap out the sugar for corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or a combination of the two.”

    Great read! Thanks!

    Concerned parent…

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