Monday, April 22, 2013

The Chinese origins of ketchup

Yes, dear reader, the word ketchup originally meant “fish sauce” in a dialect of Fujian province, the humid coastal region that also gave us the word “tea” (from Fujianese te). ...

The story begins more than 500 years ago, when this province on the South China Sea was the bustling center of seafaring China. Fujianese-built ships sailed as far as Persia and Madagascar and took Chinese seamen and settlers to ports throughout Southeast Asia. Down along the Mekong River, Khmer and Vietnamese fishermen introduced them to their fish sauce, a pungent liquid with a beautiful caramel color that they made (and still make) out of salted and fermented anchovies. This fish sauce is now called nuoc mam in Vietnamese or nam pla in Thai, but the Chinese seamen called it ke-tchup, “preserved-fish sauce” in Hokkien—the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan. ...

What may be surprising—given fish sauce’s heady scent and England’s reputation for bland food—is that while buying all these barrels of arrack [a liquor made of fermented red rice] from Chinese merchants in Indonesia, British sailors also acquired a taste for ke-tchup. By the turn of the 18th century, fish sauce and arrack had become as profitable for British merchants as they were for Chinese traders. ...

The great expense of this Asian import soon led to recipes in British and then American cookbooks for cooks attempting to make their own ketchup. Here’s one from a 1742 London cookbook in which the fish sauce has already taken on a very British flavor, with “eschallots” (shallots) and mushrooms...

The mushrooms that played a supporting role in this early recipe soon became a main ingredient, and from 1750 to 1850 the word ketchup began to mean any number of thin dark sauces made of mushrooms or even walnuts. ...

It wasn’t until the 19th century that people first began to add tomato to ketchups, probably first in Britain. This early recipe from 1817 still has the anchovies that betray its fish-sauce ancestry...

By the mid-1850s, the anchovies had been dropped, and it was only in 1890 that the need for better preservation (and the American sweet tooth) led American commercial ketchup manufacturers like Heinz to greatly increase the sugar in ketchup, leading to our modern sweet and sour formula.