What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘ketchup’?
If you’re in the UK or US, it’s most likely ketchup will make your mouth tingle a little with the impression of the sweet and tangy tomato sauce you eat with chips, probably from the iconic Heinz bottle. The red sauce is, according to one study, found in 97% of homes across America and is one of the most recognisable brands across the West. For many, tomato ketchup is synonymous with all that is familiar and comfortable. As a kid it may well be the gentle drug that gets you to eat broccoli and carrots, or the ideal sauce for your plain, plain pasta.
In Indonesia it’s the dark brown sticky sweet sauce that goes on every meal (maybe that’s just Jogja). Kecap, pronounced almost the same as ketchup, is equally as synonymous with Indonesia as the western counterpart is in the west. Nasi goreng? Uses kecap. Got a bowl of soto? Add some kecap. Want to eat some gorengan? There’s sambal kecap on the side. Here it is made from fermented soya beans and has retained that homegrown, local quality that comes with a product that lives in every house and restaurant. A strange mirror from one world to the next.
So how did ketchup come to be the cross-continent, multi-purpose condiment found today?
The word ‘ketchup’ familiar as it is in English or Indonesian, actually has its origins in Hokkien, derived from the word ‘kê-tsiap’, meaning preserved fish sauce – a very straight forward description of the ingredients. The sauce is thought to originate between China and Vietnam (where it is called mắm nêm) before spreading out to other areas of southeast Asia through trade routes and migration between communities and islands. Here, ‘kê-tsiap’ became kecap and the sauce transformed from meaning preserved fish sauce to generally fermented sauce, with kecap manis as sweet soy sauce and kecap asin as salty soy sauce.
Through colonial routes in the Malay Archipelago in the late 17-early 1800s, the sauce – originally without any tomatoes – found its way to the UK as ‘catsup’ and was a favourite of wealthy communities who tried to replicate the taste using mushrooms, anchovies, walnuts and occasionally stale beer. catsup was thin and brown in appearance and definitely not one for dipping chips, this was for adding flavour to soups and pie sauces, and by the inclusion of stale beer was already far more British than the Chinese equivalent.
It wasn’t until a number of years later that the sauce found its way to America and tomatoes managed to creep their way into the recipe. With the addition of tomatoes however, nobody could make ketchup last for long periods of time. Henry J. Heinz, a German immigrant saw a gap in the market and an opportunity. After the fall of his original radish sauce, he decided to develop his own brand of ‘catsup’ as it was commonly called, and changed the name to ‘ketchup’. His all-American marketing meant that across the west the original sauce is forgotten to make way for the very Western concept of ‘ketchup’ In a full circle, American/British tomato ketchup has made its way back to Asia where it is used in Chinese-American versions of sweet and sour chicken and sometimes used instead of tamarind in pad-thai in Thailand, as well as being the stereotypical chip dipping sauce.
Yet I think what’s so interesting about ketchup is not how it has transformed from one country to another, but how each transformation is viewed as an original, homegrown staple in each location.
If you think about Vietnamese food for example, fish sauce is central to the depth and tanginess of the flavour. A Vietnamese restaurant will have some on the table, a kitchen cupboard would be empty without it. If you go into any warung in Indonesia, next to the wok is the signature large bottle of kecap manis, complete with a shadow puppet inspired logo. It’s unheard of to go to a restaurant or pub in the UK and there is no ketchup for your chips., and cheap talk involves whether you keep it in the cupboard or the fridge. In each of these places, I’m sure you could ask anyone on the street where ketchup/mắm nêm/ke-tsiap/kecap comes from and they would unhesitantly say their country. Each of variation brings so much comfort, regularity, a sense of knowing where you are – and yet, whilst they are local and developed and personal flavours, they also speak of global markets, history, colonialism, migration and the world’s range of different palettes.
First published on blog.iqbar.co.uk