Nowadays, the word ‘ketchup’ readily conjures images of Heinz ketchup’s iconic upside-down bottle design, with its bright red colors and familiar font, and promises of that savory goodness we have come to take for granted.
The association is so strong that going to the trouble of specifying the type of ketchup seems wholly superfluous: it’s a given that ketchup should be made from tomatoes, is it not?
In reality, the ketchup we know and enjoy is simply a specific iteration of a specific variant; and a relatively recent one, at that, with the first tomato ketchup recipe being published only in 1812.
Earlier recipes, published almost a century earlier (starting in 1727), called for completely different ingredients, namely fish, mushrooms, and walnuts.
In its original incarnation, ketchup also relied much more heavily on the use of spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, horseradish, etc., and perhaps equally shocking: very few non-tomato ketchup recipes listed sugar as an ingredient.
By comparison, according to an article published a number of years back in the Washington Post, “a tablespoon-size serving [of Heinz ketchup] has four grams of sugar, which is more sugar than a typical chocolate chip cookie,” so the difference is palpable.
Ketchup – An Ever-evolving Condiment
Even tomato ketchup has come a long way: earlier versions were actually dark brown in appearance, as a result of overcooking and scorching.
The use of chemical preservatives is a more modern addition, so earlier recipes had a much more sour taste and relied heavily on spices to camouflage fermentation and spoilage.
As you can see, the ketchup we consume nowadays is itself the result of extensive tweaking (bright-red color, sweeter, etc.)
British explorers first encountered ketchup in Southeast Asia, but the core concept of a pickle in which fish is preserved has been arrived at independently by multiple cultures around the world.
For example, the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans enjoyed garum, a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment, and which shares many similarities with non-tomato ketchup.
Similarly, the Chinese community in Northern Vietnam had the word kê-tsiap, meaning “the brine of pickled fish,” and a strong contender for the etymological root of the modern word ketchup.
Catchup, catsup, or ketchup?
With ketchup, everything is negotiable, even the etymology and spelling of the word itself: its linguistic roots are disputed, with catchup, catsup, and ketchup vying for official recognition.
It would appear ketchup has emerged as the victor, with the venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary now listing the once ubiquitous ‘catsup’ as a “less common spelling of ketchup,” but the process took hundreds of years.
After immersing myself in the history of this wonderful condiment and looking up authentic period recipes, I can say this lack of standardization hardly comes as a surprise.
Compared to its eighteenth-century incarnation, it wasn’t just catchup, or catsup, or ketchup – whatever your preferred spelling – that underwent a metamorphosis.
Indeed, other more common words like garlic (spelled ‘Garlick’ in a recipe from 1732) and sauce (‘sawce’) also got small cosmetic changes, and other linguistic features that were once popular in the 17th and 18th centuries were dropped from the English language entirely, like the trend of always capitalizing nouns – a feature retained in modern-day German.
One can only wonder what the next couple of centuries have in store for this condiment, but given the degree of change ketchup has undergone over the course of its history, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to conceive of tomato being phased out over time in favor of other ingredients, and/or of a return to a less thick, more watery consistency.
Enter Banana Ketchup
While types of ketchup other than tomato are now virtually extinct in Europe and North America, banana ketchup is a staple found in every Filipino kitchen, and also popular in India—the world’s largest producer of bananas.
Despite the ubiquitous popularity of this tropical fruit, the switch from the Gros Michel banana to the Cavendish cultivar went almost unnoticed.
Given ketchup’s convoluted history, still shrouded in mystery to a great extent, it is fitting that the equally complex banana should be used as a substitute ingredient in countries like the Philippines and India.
Banana ketchup, marketed as ‘banana sauce’ by the Philippine food company Nutri-Asia under the brands UFC (Universal Foods Corporation) and Jufran, closely resembles tomato ketchup.
It smells like tomato ketchup and has a similar texture. Even visually, it is a close match, thanks to the use of food coloring to give it that familiar, deep red hue, as opposed to its naturally brownish-yellow one.
The key difference lies in banana ketchup’s gustatory characteristics: it’s still savory, but with an undeniable fruity note, and not a whole lot of spice to it.
Nowadays, banana and tomato ketchup are used more or less interchangeably in the Philippines – the former being the cheaper of the two – and used to enhance the flavor of french fries, Longganisa sausage, scrambled eggs, fried chicken, etc.
The Esperanto of Cuisine
Ketchup can now be found on dining tables all across the globe, blending seamlessly into the fabric of each country’s local cuisine.
This process of culinary versatility and symbiosis has led to it being proclaimed the “Esperanto of cuisine.”
Ketchup has indeed acquired the status of gastronomy’s common language, but unlike Esperanto, it has already diverged into multiple ‘dialects,’ if you will.
For example, while the merits (or lack thereof) of putting ketchup on hot dogs are fiercely debated in the US, no such discussions are taking place in Tokyo or Osaka, where both ketchup and mustard can often be found in peaceful cohabitation on top of a hot dog.
The red sauce is also used in the preparation of omurice, a fusion-style dish consisting of an omelet filled with fried rice. In this dish, ketchup is used on the inside to flavor the fried rice, and sometimes as a topping on the outside.
Contrast this to Western European and North American cuisine, in which ketchup and rice don’t go well together, as attested by various Quora and Reddit threads.
The list goes on, with the red condiment being used as an accompaniment to meat—another topic of culinary schism in the US, where the idea of ketchup on steak has a large share of detractors.
So, as you can see, and as author Andrew F. Smith puts it “ketchup is a business of global significance,” and the diverse ways it is used in different countries make it a particularly rich and interesting condiment.
-F. Smith, Andrew; Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment
With Recipes; specifically p.13 and 19, but not exclusively.
-Koeppel, Dan; Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World; p.31