Sunday, December 2, 2007

Apple #284: Ketchup

I have several burning questions about ketchup:
  • Why does the word have two spellings, ketchup and catsup?
  • Which of the two spellings is preferred?
  • Who first made it and how long has it been around?

The answers to all these questions are interlinked in the global history of ketchup.

Ketchup is actually the descendant of a condiment first made in China (as I have found again and again in my Daily Apple quests, just about everything in the world today came from China). But in its original form, it included no tomatoes, and was closer to Worcestershire sauce.

Worcestershire sauce
(Image from Jupiter images)

In fact, ketchup's ancestor was a pickled fish sauce, called ketsiap. This word, too, has various spellings, including kôe-chiap and ka-chiap, among others. It was thinner and more liquid than what we know as ketchup today, and its primary ingredient was pickled fish brine. People loved that fish brine, and they used it as a dipping sauce.

As sailors and other traders traveled about, they brought the sauce with them from China to Indonesia and Malaysia. From there, it made the journey to England and France, where it underwent some modifications, mainly the addition of lots of mushrooms. By the 1700s, various ketchup recipes included ingredients such as:
  • anchovies
  • fish brine
  • oysters
  • walnuts
  • mushrooms
  • kidney beans
  • lemons
  • white wine
  • vinegar
  • sweet spices like nutmeg and cloves.

Frontispiece of Elizabeth Smith's The Compleat Housewife, first published in 1742 (this image is from the 1850 version). It was published in England but sold in the US. It includes a recipe for mushroom ketchup, and is considered to be the record of the first known ketchup made in the United States.
(Image from University of Pennsylvania Library)

People started adding tomatoes to their ketchup in the 1780s. Then, in 1872, Henry J. Heinz came up with his recipe that used tomatoes plus the primary ingredient in all his multitudinous products, vinegar. He also added salt, sugar, onion, and spices, and wound up with a condiment that hit all the major taste sensations: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory (umami).

Heinz' tomato ketchup hit the stores in 1876. But his was not the only tomato ketchup for sale. All sorts of other manufacturers were making their own tomato ketchup. And they each had a slightly different spelling for their product, trying to establish theirs as unique and also the best one available.

Bottles of Heinz ketchup as they appeared in 1876.
(Image from Heinz Australia)

Finally, after all the competitors edged each other out of the market, three were left standing: Heinz, Del Monte, and Hunt's. Heinz called their product Ketchup, while Del Monte and Hunt's called theirs Catsup.

So you can thank advertisers, I suppose, for the fact that two spellings for the same product are still in use today.

The spelling that seems to be the dominant choice today is ketchup. Personally, I decided I prefer that spelling because it is closest to the word for ketchup's ancestor, ke-tsiap. But another event influenced the preference in spelling.

In 1981, the US government issued a list of preferred vegetables for use in school cafeterias. They included ketchup on that list of vegetables. There was a huge outcry about this, lots of scoffing at the idea of ketchup as a vegetable, and the USDA took it off the list.

But when they put ketchup on the list, they used only one spelling, ketchup. Del Monte and Hunt's fell way behind in their sales compared to Heinz because they were selling catsup. Del Monte changed the name of their product to Ketchup, and Hunt's followed suit not long after. Both companies wanted to catch up with their competitor. Har har har!

Del Monte used to sell catsup . . .
(Image from adclassix)

. . . but now they sell ketchup -- and still classify it as a vegetable item.
(Image from Del Monte Vegetables / Ketchup)

Hunt's also sold catsup for a very long time . . .
(Image from Goantiques; ad for sale by TCAC Mall)

. . . but they, too, got on the ketchup bandwagon.
(Image from Hunt's Ketchup Products)

While all this furore was going on about whether or not ketchup could be considered a vegetable and how should companies could get more of it sold to schools, the fact remained that tomatoes, from which ketchup is made, are technically fruit.

One final tidbit about ketchup: the best way to get ketchup out of the bottle is not to invert the bottle completely and whack it on the bottom. Instead, tilt the bottle part way, as you would to pour a bottle of soda, and tap it on the neck. This will help the air slide up the neck and displace the extremely viscous viscous liquid that is ketchup, so that it will want to slide out of the bottle. If you've got a glass bottle of Heinz ketchup, try tapping on the number 57 on the neck. That should do the trick.

This billboard demonstrates the best angle for pouring ketchup.
(Image sourced from Heck Of A Guy's blog, which provides extensive detail on all the elements of decanting ketchup)

But actually, most ketchups are now sold in squeeze bottles, so that's not much of an issue anymore.

Now I'm really hungry for French fries and ketchup.

(Image from Impact Menu Systems)

Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, "Ketchup / Catsup History," Home Cooking,, 2007.
Lynne Kerrigan, Culinary Sleuth, Global Gourmet, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ketchup.
Lynn's false facts which many people accepted as true debunked here.
Andrew F. Smith, Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment, with Recipes, page 6.
Patricia B. Mitchell, Ketchup's Colorful Past, Food History.
Joe Kissell, The Story of Ketchup, Interesting Thing of the Day, December 1, 2004.
Kimberly Skopitz, A brief history of ketchup, essortment, 2002.
The Accidental Scientist, Science of Cooking, A Brief History of Ketchup.


  1. this was a very interesting read :) thanks for posting this! it helped me with a report that i'm currently doing.

    nice blog! keep it up!

  2. Thanks, jannc! Glad I could be of service. Hope you'll stop by again.


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