I hate tomato ketchup. Or catsup. Or whatever that sickeningly sweet red stuff is that Americans slop over fries, burger, eggs….you name it. I have no idea how so many people can love something so awful. Still…the fact that it is so popular made me wonder: where did this stuff come from?
In a fit of curiosity, I made with the research. The first thing I learned, that there are many kinds of ketchup, intrigued me. Mushroom ketchup? Plum? Pineapple? I was fascinated by the idea. What made a ketchup a ketchup? And more importantly….what did tomato ketchup taste like BEFORE it was engineered for shelf life?
Ketchup goes back a long way. The original term in Chinese is kê-tsiap. It was a sauce made from fermented fish. From Asia (it’s a little unclear if the sauce originated in China, or was brought there by traders from Vietnam), it made its way to Britain via the sailors on the trading ships that found their way to the East Indies in the 17th century.
Ye Olde British kê-tsiap was not made of tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, and presevatives. The order of the day was more earthy and fishy: mushrooms, nuts, oysters, etc. Tomato ketchup as we know it didn’t originate until nearly 1812, ,and even then, used brandy instead of sugar or vinegar for flavor. As ketchup began to catch on in Britian and the United States, extending the shelf life became problematic. Vinegar was added to allow the sauce to keep longer, but it was so sour that few could stand it. Adding sugar helped to balance the flavor somewhat, even if some of the richness of the tomato and added spices were muted. It was really Henry J. Heinz who masterminded the final solution, and before long, bottles of Heinz ketchup were flying off the shelves.
All that is well and good, but I wanted to know what a homemade ketchup could taste like. I made some. Here is the recipe I used (from Simply Scratch):
- 12 ounces Tomato Paste (I used fresh tomatoes cooked down into a paste instead of canned)
- 1/2 cup Dark Brown Sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon Dry Ground Mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt
- 1/2 scant teaspoon Cinnamon
- 2 pinches of Ground Clove
- 2 pinches of Allspice
- 1 pinch of Cayenne Pepper
- 2/3 cup Water
- 4 tablespoons White Wine Vinegar
- Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
- Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Store in an airtight container in the fridge and overnight for the flavors to develop. This ketchup recipe should last for 3 weeks in the fridge.
After a few days in the fridge, the spices and sweet balanced the sour of the vinegar nicely, and I was treated to a sauce that was marvelously rich and complex without being overpowering to the food. Naturally, my kids hated it, but when I took it to a cookout with friends, it was generally held to be superior to that nonsense that comes out of the plastic red bottle.
I want to try to make other sorts eventually, and I’d to find a recipe for an approximation of the original fermented fish sauce. One more experiment for the list.