A tomato-vinegar based sauce.

Ketchup seems as American as apple pie (which itself is English, not American), but just like the pizza we know and love originated in Greece, so the tomato ketchup we use today has a history very different from Heinz 57.

The origins of the word come from a Chinese dialect: 鮭汁, or kê-chiap (“brine of fish”), which was taken into Malay as kicap (pronounced “kichap” but also spelled as kecap and ketjap). Our early Anglicization was catchup (c. 1690), which transmuted into catsup (first used by Jonathan Swift, by all appearances, in 1730), which is the still-used alternative to “ketchup”. Our modern firm first appeared in 1711 in An Account of the Trade in India by Charles Locklear.

Though the lineage here seems straightforward enough, some have advanced the notion that our ketchup is a cognate of the French escavèche (“food in sauce”) but also more importantly the Spanish/Portuguese escabeche, which refers both to a style of food and the brine-like sauce used to marinate it. The word has been traced back to al-sikbaj, of which Karen Hess’ proposed iskebey may be a poor transliteration1. Regardless, the etymology refers to a pickled dish: in the former’s case, it comes from the Persian sik (“vinegar”) and ba (“food”).

If you look carefully at a bottle of ketchup, it will likely refer to itself as “tomato ketchup”; this may seem redundant until you realize that a tomato-based version was a fairly recent change in the evolution of the condiment (specifically, the very early 19th century). Though the original may have been fish, its earliest forms were mushroom, walnut, and other things that don’t sound nearly as appetizing (in fact, as late as the early 18th century, tomatoes were considered poisonous).

It has also been suggested that the early origins of ketchup—that is, as kê-chiap—eventually led to the modern condiment known as soy sauce, more popular in inland regions of China. In countries whose cuisine more prominently features seafood, fish sauce is still alive and well: in Vietnam, it is known as nước mắm; in Korea it is aek jeot; &tc. How much it resembles the earliest forms of ketchup, however, is anyone’s guess.

  1. As cited in Andrew Smith’s Pure Ketchup[]
§5612 · June 9, 2010 · Tags: , , ·

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