The Cosmopolitan Condiment
An exploration of ketchup’s Chinese origins.
The mushrooms that played a supporting role in this early recipe soon became a main ingredient, and from 1750 to 1850 the word ketchup began to mean any number of thin dark sauces made of mushrooms or even walnuts. Jane Austen’s family seemed to prefer this new walnut ketchup, and the household book kept by Jane's friend Martha Lloyd while she lived with Jane’s family in Chawton tells us they made it by pounding green walnuts with salt and then boiling the mash with vinegar, cloves, mace, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, horseradish, and shallots.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that people first began to add tomato to ketchups, probably first in Britain. This early recipe from 1817 still has the anchovies that betray its fish-sauce ancestry:
Tomata Catsup (1817)
Gather a gallon of fine, red, and full ripe tomatas; mash them with one pound of salt; let them rest for three days, press off the juice, and to each quart add a quarter of a pound of anchovies, two ounces of shallots, and an ounce of ground black pepper; boil up together for half an hour, strain through a sieve, and put to it the following spices; a quarter of an ounce of mace, the same of allspice and ginger, half an ounce of nutmeg, a drachm of coriander seed, and half a drachm of cochineal; pound all together; let them simmer gently for twenty minutes, and strain through a bag: when cold, bottle it, adding to each bottle a wineglass of brandy. It will keep for seven years.
By the mid-1850s, the anchovies had been dropped, and it was only in 1890 that the need for better preservation (and the American sweet tooth) led American commercial ketchup manufacturers like Heinz to greatly increase the sugar in ketchup, leading to our modern sweet and sour formula.
The Chinese origins of our national sauce aren’t just a fun bit of culinary trivia—ketchup’s history offers a new way to look at global economic history. If you subscribe to a traditional Western model of Asian economics, China turned inward in 1450 during the Ming dynasty and became isolated and economically irrelevant, leading to stagnation and a low standard of living until the West finally dragged Asia into the world economy in the 19th and early 20th century.
But the vast production and trade of ke-tchup (not to mention arrack and less delicious goods like textiles and porcelain) well into the 18th century tell a different tale. Recent scholars have shown that the Chinese government’s bans on private sea trade were repeatedly rescinded, and in any case were ignored by Hokkien merchants and pirates, who continued to sail and trade illegally on a massive scale. In fact, by the time British sailors brought ketchup back to England, China was the richest nation in the world by any measure—including standard of living, life span, per-capita income, military strength—and produced the bulk of the whole world’s GNP. China’s control of intra-Asia trade together with its superior manufacturing technology (in textiles, clothing, ceramics, and of course fermentation) meant that China dominated the world economy until the industrial revolution.
These facts explain why the British and Dutch were so eager to get to Asia: Most of the world's trade took place only there. But all Europe had to offer in exchange for Asia’s considerable luxury goods were gold and silver from American colonial mines. As Charles Mann argues in 1493, it was thus the desire for Asian exports that drove Europe’s intense phase of exploration and colonization in the New World. The encounter between Western appetites and Eastern products created our modern “world-spanning interconnected civilizations,” to borrow Mann’s turn of phrase.
The story of ketchup—from the fermented fish sauces of China and Southeast Asia to the sweet chutneys of England and America—is, after all, a story of globalization and of centuries of economic domination by a world superpower. But the superpower isn't America, and the century isn't ours. Think of those little plastic packets under the seat of your car as a reminder of China’s domination of the global world economy for most of the last millennium.
Dan Jurafsky is a linguistics professor at Stanford University and writes the blog The Language of Food.