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Home / Brunch / How the chutney gave way to ketchup

How the chutney gave way to ketchup

How did chutney-loving India become a nation of ketchup fans? And why do we eat even our samosas with ketchup?

brunch Updated: May 05, 2018 22:24 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Indians want a ketchup they can eat with samosas
Indians want a ketchup they can eat with samosas(Getty Images)

There was a time when the use of ketchup was a class division thing. If you went to clubs or fancy restaurants then you would be offered ketchup with your snack or your potato chips. But at roadside places, dhabas, less fancy restaurants and the like, you would get a chutney of some kind.

Now, the use of ketchup is a generational thing. People of my generation are horrified when they see samosas being served with ketchup. I am always appalled when I get a bowl of ketchup with a plate of shami kebabs.

But younger people don’t find the ubiquity of ketchup at all unusual. They don’t ever see it as a British or American sauce. It is something they have grown up with; it’s just another all-purpose sauce to eat with everything.

 What made the difference?

Several factors, I think. Of these, the most important was the boom in fast food outlets. Ketchup is the petrol of the fast food industry. You can’t imagine a branch of Burger King or McDonald’s running without ketchup. So it is with KFC and the other chains that have spread all over India. You will find little sachets of ketchup at all of these stores/outlets. And often the main course itself (say, a burger) will have ketchup smeared inside it.

I reckon that the generation that grew up with fast food stores and little sachets of ketchup is now so familiar with the taste that it regards ketchup as an all-purpose seasoning. If you can smear ketchup on your alu tikki burger then why can’t you have it with your samosa?

And then, there is the general move towards convenience foods at home. When I was young, they would make kothmir chutney (coriander chutney) in our kitchen every two days. Now, hardly anybody has the time. Far easier to just open a bottle of some packaged sauce. 

I am sure many Indians privately wonder: are these guys really making tomato ketchup?

There is also the hygiene issue. Unless I am sure about its provenance, I am always apprehensive about eating chutney at restaurants. Many of us will be even more careful if our children are with us. Ketchup from a bottle is always safer especially if you are eating at a roadside stall.

And finally, there is the failure of the Indian sauce industry. When you go East, you find any number of bottled sauces made to local recipes. (Sriracha, originally from Thailand, is one of the most famous). But Indian sauce manufacturers have failed to successfully market bottled versions of our traditional sauces. Why should you have to dunk your samosa in ketchup at a halwai’s store? Why aren’t the manufacturers pushing an alternative Indian sauce?

For all of these reasons, the Indian ketchup market is expanding at a phenomenal rate. Over the last six years, it has grown by around 18 per cent every single year, which means that it doubles in size every four years or so. All indicators suggest that this rate of expansion will be maintained and may even rise.

While all this pleases the big food companies, I am sure many Indians privately wonder: are these guys really making tomato ketchup? Or is this just pumpkin ketchup being passed off as the real thing?

It is a valid question. And the answer is complicated.

The local preference in India is for the taste of our chutneys — sweet and masaledaar
The local preference in India is for the taste of our chutneys — sweet and masaledaar ( Shutterstock )

At one level, you can look at the Indian ketchup boom as just the latest instalment in a global success story. In 2004, the writer Malcolm Gladwell published a famous article called The Ketchup Conundrum in The New Yorker. Gladwell argued that while the American condiment market had diversified and morphed over the years (he gave the example of French mustard which had grown in popularity at the expense of English /American mustard), ketchup preferences had remained more or less the same. People stuck to the basic tomato ketchup and Heinz was still the market leader. 

Gladwell argued that Heinz Ketchup had been popular for such a long period because it had ‘amplitude’ – its flavours were more perfectly harmonised and hit all our taste receptors in just the right way. One reason why the ketchup market had not changed in the same way that the mustard market had, Gladwell suggested, was because Heinz Ketchup was a pretty perfect invention.

Well, Gladwell was right. And he was wrong. Heinz may be perfect in America. But Indians don’t necessarily think it is perfect.

Everyone in the food business will acknowledge that few companies put as much effort into making ketchup as Heinz does. (The company even specifies the seeds from which the tomatoes that go into its ketchup are to be grown.) And the slightly vinegary taste that distinguishes most American ketchups was pioneered by Heinz.

Except that Heinz has not been a huge success in India. The two big-selling retail ketchups are Kissan and Maggi. The restaurant sector relies on Cremica and Veeba who make higher quality ketchup than the retail biggies. Heinz does not dominate either segment.  

Heinz’s problems in the Indian market are almost certainly about taste. I like doing ketchup blind tastings with friends by dunking French fries into bowls of ketchup. And Heinz has never once come first in those tastings. The winners are always Veeba or Cremica.

The generation that grew up with fast food stores regards ketchup as an all-purpose seasoning
The generation that grew up with fast food stores regards ketchup as an all-purpose seasoning ( Shutterstock )

If you taste all the ketchups carefully, you will notice that they seem different from each other. Cremica and Veeba are more tomatoey. Heinz has a more acidic taste. And both Kissan and Maggi have a slightly sweet and tangy taste. Kissan is an Indian brand but I am guessing that Maggi, which is owned by Nestle, tweaks its recipe for the Indian market to get this tangy sweetness. 

When it comes to India, there is a local preference that seems to determine market share. Indians like the taste of our chutneys. We want our ketchup to be a little sweet and slightly masaledaar. We want a ketchup we can eat samosas with.

Heinz seems to have stuck with its original recipe, even in the Indian market. (And more power to them for not tinkering with a global classic.) But that’s not what the mass market wants.

What about the kaddu factor?

 Well, first of all, it is important to note that the name tomato ketchup may be misleading. In most ketchups, the tomato content is around 30 per cent or less. The big Indian retail giants have reduced the tomato content in recent years to under 25 per cent. They say its about taste profile etc. etc. But many suspect that it is about money. Tomatoes are not cheap. Nobody will go on the record about recipes but I guess that the reason Cremica and Veeba taste more tomatoey is because they have a higher tomato content than the mass brands.

For many manufacturers, reducing the tomato content is the route to greater profitability. Hence the kaddu factor.

Ketchup is the petrol of the fast food industry
Ketchup is the petrol of the fast food industry ( Shutterstock )

Most manufacturers do not buy raw tomatoes. They make their ketchup from tomato paste which is made by an industrial process that extracts the moisture and concentrates the tomato flavours. (The Italian La Salsa, an ancient tomato paste, is the ancestor of today’s concentrated paste.) This is partly for reasons of convenience but also for reasons of availability. Tomatoes are not in season all year round so it makes sense to convert them into paste and store them that way.

At the lower end of the ketchup market, some manufacturers will use less tomato paste and buy a much cheaper vegetable paste (which can include kaddu). They add colour and flavouring agents to make the sauce taste like real ketchup (the lurid colours you sometimes see are artificial) but of course it never really does.

It is dhabas, halwais and thelawallas who are the biggest customers for the cheap ‘tomato’ sauces. So manufacturers make their sauces even sweeter and tangier than say, Kissan. This is usually the sauce you will be served with your pakoras or samosas at a roadside stall.

So yes, there is a ketchup explosion in India. But it is not an explosion of Heinz-style ketchup. It is not a sudden love for American flavours. Nearly every manufacturer has tweaked the original recipe so that ketchup too can be treated as another Indian condiment.   

I asked Viraj Bahl of Veeba, which has profited enormously from the ketchup boom (though Veeba ketchup is made for restaurants and not sold at retail stores) what he thought the lesson of the boom was. I think his answer sums it up.

The boom, Viraj said, proves that Indian companies can make products that are world class. But it also proves that Indian consumers want products that are customised for Indian taste profiles.

From HT Brunch, May 6, 2018

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