Kê-tsiap: The surprising Asian origins of ketchup

  • The term “ketchup” stems from the Hokkien Chinese word for a preserved fish sauce: kê-tsiap.
  • European merchants brought the sauce to Britain in the 17th century, where its ingredients were swapped to suit Western palates while retaining its umami flavor.
  • After the sauce was brought to the United States in the 19th century by British settlers, it was altered and mass-produced by manufacturers who incorporated sugar and vinegar to give it a sweet-sour flavor.
  • Today, ketchup is a ubiquitous condiment found all over the world.

The history of ketchup is one that spans several centuries and continents, originating in Asia before becoming one of the most popular condiments in America.  

From complimenting culinary classics such as hamburgers and fries to spawning billion-dollar corporations, ketchup’s bright and sweet-sour tang is firmly embedded in America’s collective taste buds. 

Similar to many other American favorites like apple pie, pretzels and hot dogs, ketchup’s origins can be traced back to other cultures. The term “ketchup” actually stems from the Hokkien Chinese word for a preserved fish sauce: “kê-tsiap.” The crimson condiment you know and love was once a dark and savory paste made from fermented anchovies. 

In the 17th century, this fish sauce made its way to Britain by way of European merchants, with its ingredients swapped to suit Western palates. Many early ketchup sauces featured ingredients such as mushrooms, walnuts and oysters to replicate the umami flavor of its Eastern counterpart. 

By the time the British brought the sauce to the United States in the 19th century, the most popular recipes for it featured tomatoes. As demand for ketchup increased, manufacturers such as Heinz produced a new formula that incorporated sugar and vinegar. These ingredients worked in tandem to create a modern version of ketchup with a signature sweet-sour flavor and longer shelf life.

Today, ketchup is an American staple and has even worked its way back to the East. For example, spaghetti Nepolitan is a popular Japanese pasta dish that uses ketchup as the base of its sauce.

The globetrotting journey of ketchup is a prominent example of how Eastern influences have shaped and expanded American palettes.


Featured Image via DaveHax

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