Ketchup: A Vietnamese Condiment

Ketchup is often cited as the all-American condiment, especially when compared to other popular ones like salsa, but how American is it? It turns out its origins aren’t American at all. Ketchup was invented in Asia. Its name is the anglicization of the Chinese word ke-tsiap, which is the name for a sauce made from fermented fish.

Historians believe that a version of ke-tsiap originated in Vietnam and then migrated to southern China. From China, it made its way to Malaysia and Indonesia. It was in those countries that British sailors encountered the sauce somewhere around the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th century. They then tried to make versions of it when they got back home.

The earliest Western form of ketchup was not the same as the ketchup we know today. The first British ketchup recipes required ingredients like oysters, walnuts, and anchovies. They were attempts to replicate savory Asian flavors using ingredients available in the West. Most of these early versions were dark and had watery textures similar to Worcestershire sauce.

Ketchup’s early popularity stemmed from its shelf life. When stored properly, it could last for up to a year.

The first mention of tomatoes in ketchup came in 1801 in Sandy Addison’s The Sugar House Book. It featured a recipe that called for squeezing the liquid from tomatoes after which they would be salted and boiled. A group of spices including cinnamon, ginger, and mace would be added. At this point in history, people were avoiding fresh tomatoes because the tomato family included poisonous plants. However, they were willing to eat cooked tomatoes and this is one of the reasons for the sauce’s popularity.

Some sources claim that tomatoes were added to ketchup in 1812 as the innovation of James Mease, a horticulturalist. His version included tomatoes, spices, and brandy.

Later on, ketchup would feature heavily in early food safety concerns since it contained sodium benzoate, a preservative that was considered harmful at the end of the 19th century. Coal tar was sometimes used in its production. Coal tar helped to give ketchup its red color.

In 1876, Henry J. Heinz started making ketchup. Because of concerns about benzoates, Heinz developed a recipe that relied on pectin and vinegar as preservatives. Because it was made without preservatives, Heinz ketchup became the market leader.

Today, ketchup continues to be extremely popular. In the US, almost 100 percent of households say that they keep a bottle of the condiment at the table.

Ketchup flavor profile

Ketchup has a strong acidic flavor profile due to its vinegar content. To balance the acidity, it contains a sweetener. It also has an umami component and some background complexity due to the spices.

Health benefits of ketchup

Ketchup is not normally marketed as a healthy food item, but it might have a greater positive impact on health than you might expect. Healthy compounds in ketchup include:

  • Lycopene: The red color of tomatoes comes from a pigment called lycopene. It is a powerful antioxidant with numerous health benefits.

Ketchup in your diet might treat or prevent conditions like:

  • Prostate cancer: Researchers have found that eating ketchup two or more times per week lowers the chance of developing prostate cancer by 20 percent. This benefit is most likely due to the lycopene content.
  • Low sperm count: The lycopene in ketchup can boost sperm count by as much as 70 percent. It can make sperm faster and result in a lower number of abnormal sperm.
  • High cholesterol: Foods rich in lycopene have been shown to lower cholesterol levels. Ketchup has been shown to have this effect.

Common uses

Ketchup is usually used as a condiment for fried foods, hotdogs, and other sandwiches as well as for eggs. You can use it to make a barbecue sauce or it can be an ingredient in your salad dressing.