It appears that the ubiquitous bottle of ketchup is not quite so modern as we thought.
The word ketchup comes from the Chinese dialect Hokkien, Ke-tsiap, the name of a sauce derived from fermented fish. Now popularly known as “ketchup” or “catsup”. The sauce was appealing to the traders and sailors for a number of reasons, one of which was that it was well-preserved and could also keep for several months without spoiling. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “catchup” first appeared in print in 1699 in the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew and was described as “a high East-India Sauce.”
The East India Trading company encountered ketchup in Southeast Asia and appeared to have tried to copy it and adjust the recipe for western tastes. This seemed to have occurred during the early 18th century according to a recipe for “Ketchup in Paste” by a Richard Bradley.
This early form of ketchup would include walnuts, mushroom, oysters and anchovies in an attempt to replicate the savoury taste first encountered in Asia.
The insufferably twee Jane Austen, who Mark Twain once memorably said of her:
“Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone,”was supposedly so keen on the walnut version of ketchup that Austen’s closest friend Martha Lloyd recorded a recipe for it .
These thin and dark early ketchups were still missing one important ingredient… the tomato.
The first known published tomato ketchup recipe was written by the Philadelphia scientist and horticulturalist James Mease in 1812. His recipe contained tomato pulp, spices and brandy but no sugar. An 1817 recipe incorporated both tomatoes and anchovies, an homage of sorts to ketchup’s original roots as a fish sauce.
Although there still was a problem with how to preserve the tomato pulp throughout the year. In 1863 , the Gordon Ramsey of his time, a M. Pierre Blot, dismissed the stuff as “ filthy, decomposed and putrid” It also appeared that commercially produced ketchup of that time was full of strange preservatives like coal tar, added to achieve that red colour.
However, as the Oxford Companion notes, the popularity of tomato ketchup would really take off after the Civil War. An 1891 issue of Merchant’s Review boasted that ketchup was the “sauce of sauces” and five years later The New York Tribune declared that tomato ketchup was America’s national condiment that was “on every table in the land.”
The most famous producer of tomato ketchup, is of course, the pickle loving Henry J Heinz. He chanced upon a recipe that used ripe tomatoes , pectin and increased the amount of vinegar to reduce spoilage, to produce the first preservative free ketchup.
By 1908, just over a quarter of a century later, sales of Heinz Ketchup reached $2.5 million, an unprecedented amount for that era. Heinz also deliberately chose the spelling “ketchup” for his product as a way to stand out from most of his competitors, who preferred the word “catsup.”