Vienna, 9 August 2020
A few posts ago, while I was describing the origins of Lea & Perrins sauce, I mentioned in passing that the story of tomato ketchup was an equally fascinating tale and thought that its telling could be the subject of one of my posts. Well, that moment has come!
I find the story of tomato ketchup worth telling because it intertwines two themes which I am passionate about and which have been the subject of a number of my posts in the past: the rich history of the humble, mundane articles which we have surrounded ourselves with, and the role which global trade has played in spreading such articles around the planet – for better or for worse. The story of tomato ketchup serves up both of these themes in spades.
Tomato ketchup is of course primarily associated with the United States, and indeed it is there that we have seen the greatest growth in the consumption of ketchup. But the roots of ketchup are buried in a land far, far away, on the other side of the world, in southern China.
The word ketchup is an Anglicisation of the Hokkien word kôe-chiap (as written in its Romanised form; 鮭汁 in Chinese characters). The homeland of Hokkien speakers, the Hoklo, is southern Fujian, although Hoklo communities also exist in Guangdong and Hainan. In southern Fujian, they live cheek by jowl with other groups like the Hakka (I only mention the latter because my wife has never forgiven me for visiting the typical Hakka roundhouses near Xiamen without her). Hokkien is only one of a mass of different languages and dialects that are found in China.
Kôe-chiap means “brine of pickled fish or shell-fish”. We have the Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (now called Xiamen), published in 1873, to thank for this explanation; I throw in a picture of the dictionary’s title page, along with the relevant entry in the dictionary.
“Brine of pickled fish” basically means a sauce made by fermenting fish in salt and collecting the liquid which is so created. So we can consider kôe-chiap to be a fermented fish sauce. The same sauce is still made in southern China, although it’s now often called yu lu (which translates as “fish dew” – such a poetic name! especially since the sauce probably smells strongly …). Here is a picture of a modern version.
In its most elemental form, as simply the liquid which oozes from brined fermenting fish, this kind of sauce is found in all the cultures in South-East Asia. So we have nuoc-mam in Viet Nam, naam-plaa in Thailand, tuk-trey in Cambodia, padaek in Laos, patis in the Philippines, budu in Malaysia, ngapi in Myanmar, and – very importantly for our story – kechap ikan in Indonesia. It’s also found in Japan (shottu kuru), Korea (aek jeot) to the east, Iran (mahyawa) and Italy (colatura di alici) to the west. In fact, until the 18th Century or thereabouts, fermented fish sauce was common in the UK and throughout the rest of Europe, after which its use died out (and it was incredibly popular in Roman times, when it was known as garum; the Romans put it in just about everything). To show the sauce’s ubiquity, I throw in a photo of the cover of a cookery book dedicated to recipes from around the world which use fish sauce.
I would ask my readers to make a mental note of the fact that fermented fish sauces also existed in Europe and in particular in the UK, because I will come back to this point later. But right now, I want to focus on how the Hoklo version of fermented fish sauce, kôe-chiap, spread throughout South-East Asia, because it is almost certainly there and not in southern Fujian that English traders and sailors came across it and liked it so much that they brought it back to the UK.
The Hoklo were intrepid traders. They traded throughout South East Asia and beyond. They also emigrated to all the polities making up South East Asia. They did this even though successive Chinese dynasties blew hot and sometimes very cold about their subjects trading overseas and emigrating, going so far in some moments as to declare that Chinese who emigrated were no longer worthy of being considered Chinese. The Hoklo were no doubt firm believers in the Chinese proverb, 山高皇帝远 shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn, meaning “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (a proverb which is still relevant in China today; I heard it uttered quite a few times in my time there): Beijing (or whatever was the Imperial capital of the moment) was far away and communications were difficult, so they could safely ignore emperors’ fulminations. I hasten to add that they were not the only southern Chinese people to trade and emigrate. Other peoples from the south, like the Cantonese and the Hakka, did the same. But the Hoklo people seem to have done it more than any other group, so they are now the largest (Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, southern Thailand) or one of the largest (Malaysia, Viet Nam, Myanmar) groups in the various Chinese diasporas in South East Asia. For the most part, the Hoklo settled in the bigger trading ports in these countries.
As emigrants from all parts of the world have done in all times, the Hoklo no doubt took their foodstuffs with them, and that will have included their fermented fish sauce. At least in Indonesia, it looks like the local population took to the sauce with such enthusiasm that the word kôe-chiap entered the Indonesian language as kechap (or kicap, or kecap, or ketjap; I presume there is some difficulty in finding a satisfactory Romanised form of the Indonesian word). This seems to be another example of Indonesians’ enthusiasm for adopting foreign words, something I have written an earlier post about. Over time, the meaning of kechap has evolved to cover just about any type of sauce, which is why the modern Indonesian name for fermented fish sauce is kecap ikan (“ikan” meaning fish in Indonesian); they now have to specify that the sauce is fish-based.
So by the 1500s (the relevance of this date will become clear in a minute), kôe-chiap was probably present throughout South-East Asia, particularly in the region’s trading ports, thanks to Hoklo traders settling in these ports. What happened next?
Well, by the early 1500s, European ships finally began to arrive in South-East Asia, having managed to make it around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. They were after eastern spices, especially pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves. These spices had always arrived in Europe via India and the Middle East, and European traders wanted to go direct to the source, thus cutting out all the middlemen and making themselves huge fortunes in the process (just to give readers an idea of the size of the profits, in 1620 a cargo of 250,000 pounds of pepper, bought for ₤26,401 in the “East Indies”, was sold for ₤208,333 in London, a profit of 690%; in the same period, a cargo of 150,000 pounds of cloves, bought for ₤5,126, was sold in London for ₤45,000, a profit of 780%). The Portuguese arrived first, followed by Spaniards (who actually arrived the other way, finding a route around the tip of South America and sailing across the Pacific). The Portuguese ruled the roost for about a hundred years; the Spaniards contented themselves with the Philippines and left the rest of South-East Asia alone. Then the Dutch and English arrived on the scene (as did the French, but they quickly disappeared). The Dutch eventually strong-armed the Portuguese out of the way. As for the English, they were actually quite modest players. They managed to do some trading and to set up a few “factories” (which in this case meant warehouses where they could store their spices and other merchandise and hold markets with the locals) in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra; these islands were at the very centre of the spice trade. But the Dutch squeezed them out by the 1600s (so the English focused on India instead, as a consolation prize; they ended up controlling the whole of the subcontinent and used that as a stepping stone to the foundation of a global Empire – what an irony).
Just for the fun of it, I throw in here a painting of a factory – it is actually a Dutch factory, in India, but I think it rather nicely gives the idea of what the factories looked like.
And for the hell of it, I add a print of Batavia, modern-day Jakarta, which was the centre of Dutch power in South-East Asia, as the town looked like in 1754.
Of course, even as they were busy trading and fighting one another, the European sailors and traders had to fill their stomachs. In their idle moments in the various South-East Asian ports they visited, or during their down time in the factories, they must have been sampling local cuisine, as modern tourists do today. Certainly in the case of the English, this included a sauce which they variously spelled as catchup, katchup, ketchup, kitchup, and maybe in a few more ways. They really liked it! In the case of sailors, it was certainly sufficiently part of their lives that a dictionary of slang used by British sailors, the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1698, had an entry for catchup (as it is spelled), where it is described simply as “A high East-India Sauce”. I include a photo of the relevant page of the dictionary (the relevant word is highlighted).
(by “high”, the writers of the dictionary were no doubt referring to the fact that the fermented fish in the sauce made it smell “off” or quite strong)
At this point, then, this ketchup sauce made the jump from South East Asia to England, as traders or sailors or both brought it back home. Once it arrived in England, it caught on big time. But now we have to ask ourselves what exactly was this sauce that English sailors and traders got so excited about? I cannot believe that it was just plain fermented fish sauce. As I said earlier, that already existed in the UK, where it was known as fish pickle and was made much in the same way as kôe-chiap was. Why would English sailors and traders get enthusiastic about a sauce they already knew, and more importantly why would they bother to bring it home? And why would people in England get excited about it? I have to think that as kôe-chiap moved around South-East Asia in the trunks of Hoklo traders and emigrants, other ingredients began to be added to the original sauce. My money would be on this having happened most in Indonesia. After all, many different kinds of kechap sauce began to be made there, to the point where the word kechap simply came to mean any sauce (and interestingly enough, it seems that until the 1950s the Chinese community in Indonesia, the majority of whom were Hoklo, made most of the different kechaps consumed in the country). So in my romantic mind’s eye, I see English traders and sailors in their Javan and Sumatran factories, or in some port somewhere in those islands, tasting the local kechap and saying “Yum! Must bring this back to Blighty”.
But what ingredients might have been added? Unfortunately, no-one in the 1600s, when the sauce caught on with the English, thought of publishing the recipe somewhere (or if they did, I haven’t found it). From the recipes which appeared in English cookery books, examples of which I give below, my guess is that a lot of spices – that pepper, nutmeg, mace and cloves which the Europeans had sailed to South-East Asia to find – were added.
In any event, English cooks began to try to copy this kechap sauce which appeared on their shores, with locally available ingredients. Here, for instance, is the earliest published recipe for katchup (as it was spelled) in an English cookery book. The book in question is The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, written by Eliza Smith and published in 1727. I love the book’s frontispiece, so I’ll throw it in here.
And here is the recipe.
To Make English Katchup.
Take a wide-mouth’d bottle, put therein a pint of the best white-wine vinegar ; then put in ten or twelve cloves of eschalot peeled and just bruised ; then take a pint of the best Langoon white-wine [a French white wine], boil it a little, and put to it twelve or fourteen [salted] anchovies wash’d and shred, and dissolve them in the wine, and when cold put them in the bottle ; then take a quarter of a pint more of white-wine, and put in it mace, ginger sliced, a few cloves, a spoonful of whole pepper just bruised, let them boil all a little ; when near cold, slice in almost a whole nutmeg, and some lemon-peel, and likewise put in two or three spoonfuls of horse-radish ; then stop it close, and for a week shake it once or twice a day ; then use it: T’is good to put into fish sauce, or any savoury dish of meat ; you may add to it the clear liquor that comes from mushrooms.
So we have the fish (although not in the form of fish sauce but rather as the fish itself) and the spices from South-East Asia (now readily available thanks to those brave English sailors), to which some local spices have been added (horse radish and shallots). Interestingly, alcohol, in the form of wine in this case (beer was used in other recipes), has been added; I suspect alcohol was not present in the original kechap.
Quite quickly, mushrooms – or rather the liquid extracted from mushrooms – which was mentioned almost as an afterthought in Eliza Smith’s recipe, started playing a more important role. In fact, in some recipes the fish disappeared completely, to be replaced by mushrooms. An example is a recipe from the cookery book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747. Before giving the recipe, let me show the book’s frontispiece, another wonderful piece of minor art.
And now the recipe.
To make Ketchup.
Take the large Flaps of Mushrooms, pick nothing but the Straws and Dirt from it, then lay them in a broad earthen Pan, strew a good deal of Salt over them, let them lie till next Morning, then with your Hand brake them, put them into a Stew-pan, let them boil a Minute or two, then strain them thro’ a coarse Cloth, and wring it hard. Take out all the Juice, let it stand to settle, then pour it off clear, run it thro’ a thick Flannel Bag, (some filter it thro’ brown Paper, but that is a very tedious Way) then boil it, to a Quart of the Liquor put a quarter of an Ounce of whole Ginger, and half a quarter of an Ounce of whole Pepper, boil it briskly a quarter of an Hour, then strain it, and when it is cold, put it into Pint Bottles ; in each Bottle put four or five Blades of Mace, and six Cloves, cork it tight, and it will keep two Years. This gives the best Flavour of the Mushrooms to any Sauce. If you put to a pint of this Ketchup a pint of Mum [Beer], it will taste like foreign Ketchup.
In fact, as far as the UK was concerned mushroom ketchup became the norm. It was in common use until some 30 years ago. It’s rather disappeared from view now, although you can still buy it online, as “Geo. Watkins Mushroom Ketchup”.
I suppose cooks are infinitely curious and will try all sorts of variations to true and tried recipes. Certainly, once people got over their diffidence about eating tomatoes (for a long while, it was thought they were poisonous), cooks tried making a ketchup with tomatoes. And here it is time to finally bring in the United States. At about the same time as English sailors and traders were going east to search for spices, they were also going west, to the newly discovered continent of America. Emigrants were going too and eventually set up the American colonies. The English colonists tended to look back to the Mother Country for their cooking habits and recipes. Both The Compleat Housewife and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy were published in the American colonies. On both sides of the Atlantic, cooks were experimenting with tomatoes. It seems that the prize for First Published Recipe for Tomato Ketchup goes to an American, a certain James Mease. In his book Archives of Useful Knowledge, published in 1812, he gave the following recipe for a tomato ketchup (he called tomatoes love apples, an early name for them):
Slice the apples thin, and over every layer sprinkle a little salt; cover them, and let them lie twenty-four hours; then beat them well, and simmer them half an hour in a bell-metal kettle; then add mace & allspice. When cold, add two cloves of raw shallots cut small, and half a gill of brandy to each bottle, which must be corked tight, and kept in a cool place.
Mease had already dropped the fish (a recipe for “tomata catsup”, in the cookery book Apicius Redivivus, or the Cook’s Oracle, published in the UK in 1817, is quite similar to Mease’s but still includes the fish) and considerably reduced the spices. It sounds more like what I would call a tomato sauce. A recipe for “tomato catsup”, given in The Virginia Housewife, written by Mary Randolph (Thomas Jefferson’s cousin) and first published in 1824, is even more like a tomato sauce, with the brandy now dropped.
Gather a peck of tomatoes, pick out the stems, and wash them; put them on the fire without water, sprinkle on a few spoonfuls of salt, let them boil steadily an hour, stirring them frequently; strain through a colander, and then through a sieve; put the liquid on the fire with half a pint of chopped onions, half a quarter of an ounce of mace broke into small pieces; and if not sufficiently salt, add a little more — one table-spoonful of whole black pepper; boil all together until just enough to fill two bottles; cork it tight. Make it in August, in dry weather.
At some point, Americans began adding sugar to their tomato ketchup. By the time, Mr. Henry J. Heinz began making his tomato ketchup in the mid 1870s, sugar was standard. Here is a handwritten description of the recipe Heinz was using in 1895.
It’s a little difficult to read and the picture doesn’t have the whole write-up, but it seems to say the following:
100 gals of thin tomato pulp
8 oz Ambonia cloves broken
7 oz Garden Allspice
6 oz broken Saigon cinnamon
4½ oz broken Penang mace
1½ oz powd Cayenne pepper
3 oz fresh chopped garlic
4½ lbs fresh chopped onions
This is all put into a 250 gal capacity kettle and boiled fast. After a while, add 4 gals of 10 %[?] vgr [vinegar] and cook, again for a while, when having almost the proper thickness add 38 lbs sugar … [I cannot read the rest]
Heinz seems to have stayed with the spicier types of ketchups. According to those who have recreated this sauce, this is a sauce with some punch to it, much more than the “timid smooth sauce” of today. But in 1895, hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries weren’t where tomato ketchup was mainly being used. No doubt the spiciness has had to be toned down.
In any event, Heinz’s tomato ketchup was a huge success and continues to be so. The company caught the wave of women no longer wanting to slave over the stoves to make their sauces at home when they could buy perfectly good ready-made sauces in the shops and then the supermarkets.
So there we have it. By the twists and turns of history, what started out as a sauce oozing out of fermenting fish ended up as a thickish sweet tomato-sugar-vinegar-based sauce, changing as different cultures met, swapped foodstuffs, and people carried new foodstuffs home and modified them to meet their needs.