The History of Ketchup: The Saucy Origin of the Beloved American Condiment

The iconic Heinz glass bottle can be seen in almost every American household. It’s a grocery store staple, present even in the most barren refrigerators and cupboards. In the US, 97 percent of families have a ketchup bottle on their dining tables.

But did you know that the quintessential American condiment is not American in the slightest?

The Fishy Origin of Ketchup

Before the use of tomatoes, the original ketchup was fish sauce, made from salted, pickled anchovies. The beloved American condiment  originally hails from East Asia. It comes from the Hokkien word kê-chiap or kôe-chiap, which means “the brine of fermented fish or shellfish.” The kê-chiap is a salty preserved fish sauce the Chinese use on tofu and rice. Before the age of mass production and piston filling and bottling machines, the Chinese made kê-chiap manually by boiling and fermenting fish then mixing some spices.

China has been fermenting meat and fish for sauces since about 300 B.C. But the demand for fish sauces fell when fermented bean products rose to fame. Food scholars traditionally divide East Asia into two condiment regions: fermented fish for Southeast Asia (Filipino patis, Thai nam pla, Vietnamese nuoc mam) and fermented beans for Northeast Asia.

The Ketchup Travels

Chinese traders from the Fukien province (Fujian today) brought the kê-chiap to Indonesia where it became kecap or ketjap. Eventually, this term evolved to encompass savory and sweet soy sauces, and then sauces in general.

Ketchup eventually conquered the entire world through the British. Scholars believe that European sailors, military forces, and merchants encountered the sauce in Vietnam and tried to replicate it back home. This likely occurred in the late 17th to the early 18th century, with Richard Bradley’s 1732 recipe “Ketchup in Paste” serving as evidence.

person dipping fries in ketchup

But the British ketchup still isn’t the version known today. Their recipes used unusual ingredients, such as walnuts, mushrooms, oysters, and the original anchovies to replicate the savory tones of the coveted Asian sauce. These vintage ketchup versions were thinner and resembled Worcestershire sauce, which the Europeans used mostly for soups, fish, and meat.

Enter the Tomato, Wiley, and Heinz

In the late 1700s, most Europeans feared the tomato due to the belief that it was poisonous. But people later discovered that most of the victims of “tomato poisoning” are actually victims of lead poisoning. Wealthy Europeans used lead-rich pewter plates to consume tomatoes. Because tomatoes are highly acidic, they would absorb the lead in the plates, poisoning the consumer.

When the fear and rumors subsided in the 19th century, tomato recipes grew famous, including the tomato ketchup. Scientist and horticulturist James Mease published the first ketchup recipe using tomatoes in 1812. His concoction contained tomato pulp, spices, and brandy, but no sugar and vinegar.

Investigations found that early commercial ketchup had unsafe preservatives. Manufacturers added coal tar to preserve the bright, red color of the ketchup and sodium benzoate to prevent spoilage. Later studies found that these two substances are harmful and carcinogenic. Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley argued that there is no need for these dangerous preservatives if quality ingredients are used.

Dr. Wiley partnered with Henry J. Heinz in 1876 and made their own ketchup. Heinz created a recipe using vinegar and ripe, red tomatoes that contained natural preservatives. His preservative-free ketchup soon dominated the market, selling five million bottles in 1905.

Ketchup has evolved and traveled a lot over the years. Thanks to technology, tomatoes, and Wiley and Heinz, Americans and the rest of the world are enjoying the sweet, tangy condiment on their favorite dishes.