The history of Ketchup

Did you know that the most popular American sauce was invented in China? A brief look at the history of ketchup and its modern life.

The history of Ketchup

Nowadays, ketchup is essential and has this image of a “goes-great-with-everything” sauce. Many people see ketchup as truly American: no wonder considering it lives in 97% of US fridges. Heinz, the most popular brand of ketchup, sells over 650 million bottles of this sauce in the world every year.

The first ketchup recipe included neither tomatoes, vinegar, nor many other ingredients that make ketchup well… ketchup. The first base of the sauce was fish, then oysters, mushrooms, and only after that – tomatoes.

How did ketchup transform from Asian fish sauce to universally loved tomato dip? And what’s special about it?

History of ketchup

Ketchup has a surprisingly long evolution that originated in China. The first version was based on pickled fish and looked more like a soy sauce – with a dark and thin texture. It was called “keh-jup” or “koe-cheup,” meaning “fish sauce.”

Thanks to the fermentation, the sauce was easy to conserve and could make a long journey. So, eventually, at the beginning of the 18th century, British and Dutch merchants brought ketchup to Europe. There, the cooks tried to recreate the recipe and, as a result, added some new ingredients. But it was still far from the dip we know today.

The first known printed recipe was in Eliza Smith’s Compleat Housewife, first published in 1727

For instance, in Great Britain, ketchup was based primarily on mushrooms and enriched with oysters, anchovies, and even walnuts. Similar ketchup recipes appeared in English and American cookbooks in the 18th century. The seasoning was a popular companion to soups, meat, fish, and other sauces.  The first name of “catsup” officially appeared in Britain in 1690; the “ketchup” variant was first listed in 1711.

Where is the tomato, you might wonder? American horticulturist James Mease created the first known recipe for tomato ketchup in 1812. His version of sauce included brandy but lacked regular vinegar and sugar. Soon, many tomato-based ketchup recipes appeared in Europe and the USA. Yet, many of them contained previous additions, like oysters or anchovies. 

In the early 19 century, tomato ketchup was sold in pharmacies as a medicine for diarrhea and indigestion. During that period, farmers primarily prepared ketchup and were happy to find another way of conserving tomatoes. With the product’s growing popularity, companies decided to enter the game. Ketchup was more popular than fresh tomatoes. For a long time, people considered tomatoes poisonous, so they preferred prepared fruit with other ingredients rather than a fresh one.

Henry J. Heinz started to produce ketchup in 1876. Heinz chose very ripe red tomatoes for his recipe, which contained more pectin than fresh ones. Pectin is a natural preservative that freed ketchup from additional chemicals to enlarge the expiration date. Plus, Heinz’s ketchup got much more vinegar and sugar. This ketchup, free of chemical preservatives, quickly gained praise all over the States and Europe. In 1905 the company sold 5 million bottles of the sauce.

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