Most of us probably look at our lonely bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup in the fridge door and think of this sweet gooey sauce as quintessentially American. What could be more American than a hamburger and fries with a huge dollop of ketchup? Ironically, neither ketchup nor French fries started out in the Land of the Free – French fries are not even French, they are Belgian, but that is an argument for another time.
Cantonese speakers might recognise the name for 茄汁 (ke2 zap1) ketchup as literally meaning “tomato sauce,” the latter character being “sauce” and the former — short for 番茄 (faan1 ke2) — meaning “foreign eggplant,” a.k.a. tomatoes. This means ketchup must be Cantonese, right? But if ketchup was pioneered in southern Chinese cuisine, how come we don’t see it more in local Hong Kong cooking? What came first, the sauce or the name?
Historians argue that the word ketchup actually comes from the Southern Min word for fish sauce in China in the 18th century. In the areas of Fujian province where Min is spoken, 鲑汁 — pronounced kôe-chiap or kê-chiap — meant fish sauce. While nowadays we associate fish sauce more with countries along the Mekong such as Vietnam and Thailand, its originals can be traced back to southeastern China. While fermented fish gave way to soya beans as the base of most Chinese sauces, probably due to its cheaper cost, the Chinese diaspora in southeast Asia stuck to the original recipe. Hokkien traders and fishermen then spread the tasty concoction even further around Asia, bringing it all the way to Indonesia where it was called kecap.
When the British finally got their hands on it around the 1700s, either in China or Indonesia, they could not get enough of this potent brew and set about trying to produce a similar flavour. Far from using tomatoes, the first imitations of ketchup were made with fermented walnuts or mushrooms. In fact, you can still find mushroom ketchup produced by old-fashioned vendors and oftentimes, the tomato version is still referred to simply as “tomato sauce” instead of ketchup.
It was not until the 1800s that recipes for tomato ketchup began appearing in American cookbooks. The first brews still included anchovies, staying closer to their inspirational origins, until the 1850s when sugar was added for taste and anchovies were discarded.
Next time you douse your fries in some sweetened red sauce remember those Hokkien traders spreading its ancient fishy cousin around the world. Somehow in Cantonese, ketchup ends up being a rare word that works both ways. In a story of a culinary ingredient coming full circle, fish sauce left China as ketchup and came back to China as tomato sauce.