The Cosmopolitan Condiment
An exploration of ketchup’s Chinese origins.
Modern ketchup has its roots in—you guessed it—Chinese fish sauce
Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Fast food is America’s signature export, and one of its most pervasive: Every day another few outlets open in Europe or Asia, spreading the distinctively American diet to the world. It’s ironic, then, that hamburgers, french fries, and ketchup are not even originally ours, a fact that is clear from what we call them. The large German contribution to American cuisine is obvious in words like hamburger, frankfurter, and pretzel, while french fries make their Franco-Belgian origins plain. And, of course, ketchup is Chinese.
Yes, dear reader, the word ketchup originally meant “fish sauce” in a dialect of Fujian province, the humid coastal region that also gave us the word “tea” (from Fujianese te). As it happens, Fujianese immigration to the United States has increased in recent years, so you can now sample Fujianese dishes in Chinatowns up and down the East Coast, paired with the homemade red rice wine that is a specialty of the province. The history of this red rice wine is intertwined with that of ketchup—but while the wine has stayed largely the same over the centuries, ketchup has undergone quite a transformation.
The story begins more than 500 years ago, when this province on the South China Sea was the bustling center of seafaring China. Fujianese-built ships sailed as far as Persia and Madagascar and took Chinese seamen and settlers to ports throughout Southeast Asia. Down along the Mekong River, Khmer and Vietnamese fishermen introduced them to their fish sauce, a pungent liquid with a beautiful caramel color that they made (and still make) out of salted and fermented anchovies. This fish sauce is now called nuoc mam in Vietnamese or nam pla in Thai, but the Chinese seamen called it ke-tchup, “preserved-fish sauce” in Hokkien—the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan. (Of course, Hokkien isn’t written with the Roman alphabet; ke-tchup is one of several old-fashioned Westernized transcriptions, like catsup and katchup. The word has died out of modern Hokkien, but the syllable tchup—pronounced zhi in Mandarin—still means “sauce” in many Chinese dialects.)
Fujianese settlers took ke-tchup with them to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines; the word was even adopted by Indonesians (although today in Bahasa Indonesia, the language of Indonesia, kecap just means “sauce”). Fujianese settlers also brought along fermented red rice, the seasoning their chefs had long used to flavor stews and braises. The immigrants began to turn this red rice into arrack, an early ancestor of rum, by distilling the fermented rice together with molasses and palm wine. Chinese factories were established on Java and Sumatra to make both fish sauce and arrack.
When Dutch and British merchants came to Southeast Asia around 1600 seeking spices, textiles, and porcelain, they quickly began to buy immense quantities of arrack from the Chinese. “Batavia arrack” became the main ingredient in punch, the world’s first cocktail. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of arrack were exported annually. This may not come as a surprise—after all, navies full of British and Dutch sailors needed something to drink, and rum had not yet been invented. What may be surprising—given fish sauce’s heady scent and England’s reputation for bland food—is that while buying all these barrels of arrack from Chinese merchants in Indonesia, British sailors also acquired a taste for ke-tchup. By the turn of the 18th century, fish sauce and arrack had become as profitable for British merchants as they were for Chinese traders.
In 1703, British merchant Charles Lockyer traveled to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and India. His An Account of the Trade in India, a kind of vade mecum for would-be global capitalists, explains the vast sums of money to be made in Asia, and how to get rich by bargaining with the Chinese and other foreigners. Here is Lockyer’s advice on buying ketchup or soy sauce in China or Tonkin (“Tonqueen”, i.e., northern Vietnam):
Soy comes in Tubs from Jappan, and the best Ketchup from Tonqueen; yet good of both sorts, are made and sold very cheap in China. … I know not a more profitable Commodity.
The great expense of this Asian import soon led to recipes in British and then American cookbooks for cooks attempting to make their own ketchup. Here’s one from a 1742 London cookbook in which the fish sauce has already taken on a very British flavor, with “eschallots” (shallots) and mushrooms:
To Make KATCH-UP that will keep good Twenty Years.
Take a Gallon of strong stale Beer, one Pound of Anchovies wash'd and clean'd from the Guts, half an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Cloves, a quarter of an Ounce of Pepper, three large Races of Ginger, one Pound of Eschallots, and one Quart of flap Mushrooms well rubb'd and pick'd; boil all these over a slow Fire till it is half wasted, and strain it thro' a Flannel Bag; let it stand till it is quite cold, then bottle and stop it very close …
Dan Jurafsky is a linguistics professor at Stanford University and writes the blog The Language of Food.