I am the kind of person who is completely obsessed with ketchup. In order to avoid getting up mid meal, I always grab an extra helping before digging in. And in case of extreme emergency, when in desperate need , I have my personal family sized bottle in my dorm room fridge. But for someone who’s food habits are so deeply intertwined with this single product, I shockingly know nothing about it’s origins. I believe that most of the world considers ketchup, as we know it today, as a truly American condiment. I personally realized this during my time abroad when ketchup accessibility and visibility were both extremely low. (For some strange reason the Germans were never concerned with eating their schnitzel or wieners with ketchup and I was the weird one for asking if the restaurant carried any.) The history of ketchup is a very long and surprisingly transformative one. The most interesting facet of its history is that something so American in nature as well as in culture is not American at all but in fact Asian.
The introduction of ketchup to the western world dates back to the early 1500’s when it was discovered by British settlers in the Fuji Islands. At the time of discovery it was simplified to a pungent amber-colored liquid made out of salted and fermented anchovies but the earliest recipe dates back to about 500 AD. When the Brits returned home they brought this sauce back with them but tried to recreate it within their own culture by anglicizing it. Instead of basing this sauce off of anchovies they created ketchup out of walnuts as well as mushrooms (aka Worcestershire sauce) and even beer. Ketchup only became the tomato based condiment that we know and love today after it was brought to America in the early 1800’s. The use of tomatoes in ketchup was avoided up until this point mainly because of a myth that tomatoes were unsafe to eat because of its close resemblance to the deadly nightshade berry. But once this misconception was proven wrong ketchup slowly rose to popularity.
For the next 200 years ketchup would continue to have a few more note worthy transformations from the use of toxic preservatives to the use of tar coal to give it that pleasing red color that we have all come to expect. Of course institutions such as the FDA were founded during this time and ketchup companies had to find healthier and more organic approaches to making their product. Strong condiment companies such as Heinz would reign and basically monopolize the ketchup industry. I believe the most important segment of the history of ketchup is that it’s root to china has been completely blotted out to the point where majority of us have no idea that it originated from the other side of the world.