Day 787: A Splatter Of Ketchup (Or Catsup)

originally published February 25, 2014

Of all the emails I receive, not counting those that pitch erectile magic or discount OxyKAUNTtiN, many implore me to tackle some of the most serious issues of our time in my articles. Sure, it’s fun to read about thought experiments or serial killers, but when am I going to tackle society’s real concerns? Like whether ‘catsup’ or ‘ketchup’ is the correct word?

Well, that’s an easy one. It’s ketchup – most of the world knows this, and most of the world will back me up with nary an argument. But that’s ‘most’ of the world – surely there must be an argument for the other side, right? After all, it’s not like the condiment was invented here. Surely its origin story would reveal the truth.

So here I go, diving valiantly into the fiery pool of controversy, my virtual word-sword ready to smite one side of this debate with molten splatter and expensive CGI effects, before I turn and walk slowly away from the topic, allowing it to explode behind me. Yes, this is the noble bad-assery of my duty: to find the facts and Michael-Bay the shit out of them.

As with many of our most prized (and traditionally, most American) delicacies, the origin of Ketchup hails from far, far away. Probably from China, though the true origin story of our favorite condiment may be a bit foggier than we historians would like. In the sunny Fujian region along China’s southeast coast there existed a brine made from pickled fish, known as ‘kôe-chiap’ in the Xiamen accent or ‘kê-chiap’ in the Zhangzhou accent. This is most likely the sauce which western explorers brought home.

Or was it? They may have instead landed in Malaysia where the local ‘kicap’ (which is pronounced ‘kichap’) sauce was king. Kicap is also a fish sauce, so it’s quite likely the word originated in one of these two nations. I don’t think linguists in either country care enough to look too deeply into this one. Either way, the viscous red goo we know and love had its origins as fish squeezin’s.

There’s one other theory, that ‘ketchup’ comes from the French ‘escaveche’, meaning ‘food in sauce’, which can then be traced back to the Arabic word ‘Kabees’, or ‘pickling with vinegar’. But given that the first citing by the Oxford English Dictionary refers to ‘catchup’ as “a high East-India sauce”, I think we can scratch the Franco-Arabic theory from the books.

But this melding of the two spellings leaves the big question open: ketchup or catsup, and why do these things mean the same damn thing?

The Xiamen word ‘kôe-chiap’ may have been heard as ‘ke-tsiap’ by early Dutch traders, so one could conclude that ketchup comes from the Malay ‘kichap’ and catsup from the Chinese ‘kôe-chiap’, but that’s too simple. Also, it doesn’t explain why everyone in the English-speaking world prefers the word ketchup, apart from some regions, mostly in the American south, where catsup is king. It looks as though ‘catsup’ is merely a faulty Anglicization of the briny fish-goop that came over from the Far East, case closed. That’s not to say you catsuppians should abandon your treasured word; after all, faulty Anglicization is how most of our language was built in the first place.

It could be worse. You could live in Wales, Scotland or Ireland where some people simply call it ‘red sauce’. That’s a frighteningly generic term, one that I – as a devourer of a chemical-rich North American diet – would shy away from. The British (and others in the Commonwealth countries) use the terms ‘ketchup’ and ‘tomato sauce’ interchangeably, whereas here our tomato sauce is the stuff we throw on pasta.

And if you’re dumping Heinz on your linguine, please don’t invite me for dinner.

Ketchup made a Fanta-esque splash into New World kitchens, meaning it showed up in a colorful variety of flavors. You had walnut ketchup, oyster ketchup, classic olde-tyme fish-juice ketchup, and so on. Mushroom ketchup is still a popular product in the UK. It took until 1801 before the first homemade tomato ketchup recipe was published. Sandy Addison gets credit for this one; I searched all over for more information about Sandy but apart from this one culture-rocking concoction, history appears to have forgotten the name. It took a while to catch on though; back then Americans weren’t sure it was safe to eat raw tomatoes.

The recipe calls for 100 tomatoes, boiled with a half-pound of salt then pressed through a fine sieve with a silver spoon before adding other ingredients like nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and pepper. By 1837 a farmer named Jonas Yerks had taken ketchup to a national level. But it was F. & J. Heinz who put the focus on the pectin-rich ripe tomatoes, which contained more vinegar and made for a goopier, slower-dripping sauce. And just like that, billions of unborn French fries cried out in triumph.

In this part of the world, no condiment can hold a splattery candle to the majesty of ketchup. Some like their Extra Fancy (with a higher specific gravity and at least 33% tomato solids), and some will never stray from their Heinz loyalty. Some (including my wife) will dunk their bacon in ketchup – which to me is a sacrilege against the holiest of cured meats – and others will desecrate a hot dog with its crimson ooze.

The challenge for most of us is to find the optimum method for ketchup extraction from an old-timey (meaning not a plastic squeeze) bottle. Slamming the base of the bottle works for some, while others are content to wait until the great gods of fast food deem it time for the ketchup to seep out. I’ll never condone scraping it out with a thin butter knife. That’s cheating, and it just feels wrong.

I learned the correct answer from the retro-chain Johnny Rockets. The servers always poured the ketchup on my fries at the table (it was a helpful gimmick), and they would simply tap the bottom of the bottle’s neck against their hand, right about where the ‘57’ can be found on the Heinz label.

Xanthan Gum is the reason ketchup is so damn finicky. It thickens the sauce and slows it down, while giving it a ‘shear thinning’ property that allows it to temporarily get thinner when force is applied to it, either by shaking or tapping the bottle. I won’t pretend to understand the specifics. Ketchup is magic, I’m fine with that.

Heinz is delightfully predictable, though I suspect we haven’t yet tapped the potential within the ketchup world. There are other brands, and certainly the organic varieties are a bit healthier, but I can see craft ketchup replacing craft beer at the forefront of our weird little zeitgeist someday. It could be the big food fad of the late 2010’s. Just a thought – you tomato engineers may want to leap on this trend before it takes off.

You can thank me with a free bottle.

Oh, and please don’t do the Heinz thing and make it blue or purple. Nobody wants that.

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