Ketchup Before Tomatoes, Part 1

By Josh Geiger Contributing Editor

Editor’s Note: A major part of the grilling experience here in the United States is the hamburger. For those gathering around the table, part of the experience is the choice of condiment. Who would have imagined the history of that red stuff everybody loves was so complicated.

There is perhaps no condiment considered more quintessentially American than ketchup. It is iconic at American barbecues and adorns countless tables in restaurants. Fast food joints have tossed packets of the stuff into bags for decades.

Ketchup is certainly popular in the United States and elsewhere, although the heavily sugared tomato paste has plenty of detractors who decry it as bland, overly sweet or just plain gross. Despite its modern associations, ketchup didn’t originate in America, and for centuries it wasn’t made with tomatoes at all.

Ketchup originated in Southeast Asia, and its ingredients were about as far from the condiment we know today as you can get. In the early 16th century, English traders in the East Indies came across a sauce called ke-tchup or ku-chiap, a fish sauce. Local recipes varied, but among the earliest is recorded in a Chinese text from 544: “Take the intestine, stomach and bladder of the yellow fish, shark and mullet, and wash them well. Mix them with a moderate amount of salt and place them in a jar. Seal tightly and incubate in the sun. It will be ready in 20 days in summer, 50 days in spring or fall and 100 days in winter.”

As with many of the products England imported, they very quickly made the product their own. One of the first things the English did, from a recipe from 1736, was add beer. The recipe calls for boiling down “2 gallons of strong, stale beer and a half pound of anchovies,” adding that “the stronger and staler the beer, the better the catch-up will be.”

Early ketchups were made of all manner of things such as cherries, oysters, blackberries, mushrooms and even walnuts. For about a century, mushroom ketchups were popular in England. They were made by putting whole mushrooms in jars with salt. It is “traditionally thin and almost black,” and has been described as “halfway between Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce.” Walnut ketchup was a favorite of Jane Austen.

About the only thing that early ketchups weren’t made of was tomatoes. Tomatoes are native to western South America, and were consumed by native populations in Central and South America. The word tomato comes from the Aztec word tomatl. After contact, tomatoes became a staple of Mediterranean cuisine.

The tomato came to northern Europe and to England by the 1590s, but it gained something of a negative reputation. One reason is that Europeans recognized the fruit as a relative of nightshade, and the fruits themselves are similar to nightshade berries, which are extremely toxic. The English botanist John Gerard authored the Herball, or General History of Plants in 1597. It was the most prevalent English book on botany in the 17th century. While Gerard knew that tomatoes were eaten in Spain and Italy, he still declared them poisonous. His views were influential enough to steer many people away. Another possibility lies in a reaction between tomatoes and pewter. Pewter plates often had a relatively high lead content, and when brought into contact with it, highly acidic foods like tomatoes can “leach” the lead, possibly causing lead poisoning. Tomatoes did appear as ingredients in The Arte of Cookery by Hannah Glasse in 1758.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that ketchup would become what we know today – thick, red and made with tomatoes. This transition was an American innovation and would even have an impact on food safety regulations.