Whilst tomato Ketchup is famous across the world for its tangy taste and zesty colour, not many people know that a similarly named condiment was created over 500 years ago from a Chinese fish sauce.
Ketchup, it seems is pretty inspiring stuff – and not just when it comes to food. The Spanish band Las Ketchup decided that it was the only name for them when thinking of a group name that would also honour their father, nicknamed ‘The Tomato’. One of their most famous hits, The Ketchup Song sold over 7 million copies in 2002 – bad news if you prefer mayonnaise.
But some claim that the sauce has its origins in Asia and that the very name ‘ketchup’ hints at much older and further-flung origins. Ket-tchup – a sauce made mainly from salted and fermented anchovies – was an ancient speciality of the Fujian province of China; and its eventual conquest of the world’s dining tables is testament to the expanding tentacles of medieval maritime trading routes.
The story began 500 years ago when settlers from Fujian – the bustling centre of seafaring China – took the preserved sauce with them to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. By the 18th century, a brisk trade was being done with British merchants. “I know not a more profitable Commodity,” noted Charles Lockyer in his 1703 commercial guide An Account of the Trade in India.
Indeed, the high cost of this immediately popular savoury Asian import ensured that English cooks were soon producing their own increasingly idiosyncratic recipes. A 1742 London cookbook has a recipe for “Katch-up that will keep good Twenty Years”, featuring the added ingredients of “eschallots” (shallots) and mushrooms. Meanwhile, a household book kept by the novelist Jane Austen’s friend, Martha Lloyd, tells us that the Austen’s preferred recipe for “catsup” included pounded green walnuts. It wasn’t until around 1820 that someone had the bright idea of adding tomatoes.
However, it was Henry John Heinz who really brought ketchup to the people. The same marketing genius that saw him devise Heinz’s famous “57 varieties” slogan certainly put the sauce on the commercial map. Within 20 years of launching the ketchup with its distinctive bottle and branding, recipes for the homemade versions had largely disappeared from cookbooks. An estimated 97 per cent of American households now have a bottle in their fridge. As Heinz himself observed (with some understatement) “to do a common thing uncommonly well brings success”.
If the company gets its way, that ubiquity will soon be repeated in households across Asia – the epicentre of its 21st century marketing drive. Heinz aims to generate 25 per cent of its revenues from emerging markets by 2016, compared to just 10 per cent in 2006, with ketchup alone enjoying annual revenue growth of around 9 per cent in the region. So, as some might argue, ketchup is coming home!