If I were to tell you that the red, sweet/tangy condiment that you slather on your sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, or fries actually began as a fish sauce… would you believe me?

Pick up a bottle of ketchup and you’ll see that it reads “Tomato Ketchup” (or Catsup).  So I ask you, if ketchup was always tomato based as we know it today… why specify tomato and not just ketchup?

Word on the streets is that over 500 years ago Vietnamese fishermen introduced a sauce — made of salted and fermented anchovies — to the Fujian province of China. Now called nuoc mam in Vietnamese, the Chinese called it something like ke-tchup, “preserved-fish sauce” in Hokkien — the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan.

In the 1600s, ke-tchup made it way to Europe through Dutch and English traders where it took on the names “ketchup” or “catsup”.

According to NPR, by the 1740s the English were enjoying their ketchup left and right with the proliferation of spices available resulting from trade with various colonies. The following recipe — from a London cookbook published in 1742 — features a variation of the fish sauce with the addition of beer, shallots and mushrooms, etc:

To Make KATCH-UP that will keep good Twenty Years.

Take a Gallon of strong stale Beer, one Pound of Anchovies wash’d and clean’d from the Guts, half an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Cloves, a quarter of an Ounce of Pepper, three large Races of Ginger, one Pound of Eschallots, and one Quart of flap Mushrooms well rubb’d and pick’d; boil all these over a slow Fire till it is half wasted, and strain it thro’ a Flannel Bag; let it stand till it is quite cold, then bottle and stop it very close …

Fast forward to the 19th century and ketchup was having the time of its life. History.com mentions cookbooks featuring recipes utilizing “oysters, mussels, mushrooms, walnuts, lemons, celery and even fruits like plums and peaches. Usually, components were either boiled down into a syrup-like consistency or left to sit with salt for extended periods of time. Both these processes led to a highly concentrated end product: a salty, spicy flavor bomb. One oyster ketchup recipe called for 100 oysters, three pints of white wine and lemon peels spiked with mace and cloves.”

The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink notes, the first instance of ketchup featuring tomatoes most likely took place in the United States, since the tomato is native to North America and Europeans were afraid of either using or cooking with it, fearing it to be poisonous. The first known published tomato ketchup recipe appeared in 1812, written by scientist and horticulturalist, James Mease. Another from 1817, Tomata Catsup, still features the anchovies which ended up falling out of favor around the mid-1850s.

With the rise of commercially produced ketchup, home cooks stopped making their own and recipes slowly disappeared from cookbooks. These days, ketchup’s main ingredients are tomatoes, sweeteners, vinegar, salt, spices.

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