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Ketchup: An American Condiment with an Asian Connection

In this June 12, 2017, photo, varieties of ketchup are displayed at Target in Wilmington, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
In this June 12, 2017, photo, varieties of ketchup are displayed at Target in Wilmington, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Ketchup: An American Condiment With an Asian Connection
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At any given time, about 97 percent of American kitchens have a bottle of ketchup.

American ketchup is made from red tomatoes, vinegar, salt, sugar and other ingredients. It has both a sweet and salty taste.

It is, without question, America’s condiment.

But it was not always that way.

In fact, the story of ketchup begins over 500 years ago -- in Southeast Asia.

Andy F. Smith is a professor of food history in New York City. He has published many books about American food, including Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment.

The word “ketchup,” Smith says, most likely comes from a Chinese dialect called Amoy. Ke-tsiap meant “the brine of pickled fish.” It probably originated in a Chinese community in northern Vietnam, Smith adds.

Yes, America’s condiment developed from fish sauce.

The sauce and the word reached Indonesia, Smith explains. That is where, in his words, “the English ran into it.”

"They had a colony in Indonesia, in the late 17th century. And it is from there that the word -- now kecap [in Indonesian] -- goes into the English language.”

From Indonesia, ketchup made its way into British kitchens and cookbooks.

"Everything that you can think of they made a ketchup out of it. And that is one way to preserve those foods for longer periods of time. And then it was used on spicing foods."

Early British ketchup was made from many different foods, such as walnuts, mushrooms and anchovies, Smith explains.

But never, ever tomatoes.

“All of the early recipes for ketchup have nothing to do with tomatoes.”

Tomato ketchup is born

Tomatoes are native to the Andes Mountains in South America. Tomato plants were first grown for food around 500 BC in what is now southern Mexico and Central America.

Spanish explorers took the plant’s seeds northward into the Caribbean and, then, back to Europe. Tomatoes arrived in U.S. colonies sometime in the late 17th century, Smith says.

For many years, however, some countries did not believe tomatoes were healthy to eat. Medical theories at the time considered the tomato to be a “cold” food. People living in cold-weather countries thought they would get sick if they ate tomatoes.

But, medical theories about tomatoes changed. By the 1830s, they were thought to be good for health in many ways. Tomato pills even became popular medicine, Smith says.

It was around then that tomato production in America took off. They were easy and low-cost to grow, Smith says. But there was one problem.

“The problem is - is that they all mature about the same time -- from late July through early October, depending on where you are. And when the tomato comes up, massive amounts are produced. And you can only eat so many fresh tomatoes.”

By the end of the growing season, American farmers had more tomatoes than they knew what to do with.

So, people began preserving tomatoes in different ways. Making ketchup from tomatoes was one solution.

‘Advertising and low cost’

Smith says two major things led to tomato ketchup’s rise in American cuisine -- advertising and low cost.

The American food company Heinz led the way.

One of the most familiar products made by H.J. Heinz its signature ketchup.
One of the most familiar products made by H.J. Heinz its signature ketchup.

“Heinz advertised it, promoted it. They were in the right position at the right time, in the early 20th century, when the health and food safety movements were taking off in the United States, and they claimed the tomato had no ingredients that were dangerous -- with the type of ketchup that they were making. So they promoted it as a health food. So they just dominated the market through advertising and promotion. And they've got a good product."

In its early days, tomato ketchup was mostly used in cooking. It was not considered the condiment that it is today.

Enter the hot dog and the hamburger, Smith explains. Both became part of American cuisine in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Haley Ho, 6, smiles as she pours Heinz Ketchup on her hamburger at a restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Haley Ho, 6, smiles as she pours Heinz Ketchup on her hamburger at a restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

“As soon as those became among the more important American foods, then ketchup became the condiment of choice.”

Heinz continues to dominate the ketchup market in the United States and in many countries worldwide.

Ketchup today

Today, most of the world’s ketchup is produced where it all began: Asia.

In fact, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China produces almost 20 percent of the world’s ketchup trade, The Economist magazine reports. The far western region grows some 70 percent of all of China’s tomatoes.

And as a whole, China grows 25 percent of the world’s tomatoes.

Smith says he is impressed by the tomato’s quick rise in China.

“Tomatoes were not an important part of Asian cuisine until the 20th century. What's surprising was, how quickly the tomato has become an important product in China.”

Some may think of ketchup as all-American. But history shows its roots are much older than the United States itself. And its connection to several Asian countries -- both in the past and in the present -- is strong.

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Ashley Thompson reported this story. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

kitchen - n. a room in which food is cooked

vinegar - n. a sour liquid that is used to flavor or preserve foods or to clean things

ingredient - n . one of the things that are used to make a food, product, etc.

condiment - n . something (such as salt, mustard, or ketchup) that is added to food to give it more flavor

brine - n . a mixture of salty water used especially to preserve or add flavor to food

pickled - adj . preserved with salt water or vinegar

originate - v . to begin to exist : to be produced or created

recipe - n . a set of instructions for making food

pill - n . a small, rounded object that you swallow and that contains medicine, vitamins, etc.

mature - v . to become fully developed

preserve - v . to keep (something) in its original state or in good condition

cuisine - n . a style of cooking

promote - v . to make people aware of (something, such as a new product) through advertising

dominate - v . to be much more powerful or successful than others in a game, competition, etc.