Saucy tales: When ketchup was made with walnuts, mushrooms

In a new column for HT Wknd, food writer and researcher Swetha Sivakumar demystifies one ingredient every month. This week: how a fish sauce from Vietnam found new ingredients in Europe, and eventually came to be defined by the tomato. Also: Are you picking the right ketchup? How to tell.
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Updated on Oct 09, 2021 03:58 PM IST
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BySwetha Sivakumar

Ketchup! This condiment has become so universal and beloved that it would seem to pair well with everything – idlis; pasta; pizza; samosas; fries; eggs. How did this sweet-and-sour sauce become such a household staple?

The word “ketchup” comes from the Hokkien Chinese kê-tsiap, which was actually a fermented fish sauce that originated in Vietnam. The fact that it could be stored for long periods of time, and added kick to bland meals, made it particularly popular with sailors in the 1600s.

Over time, traders carried this sauce to Malaysia, then Indonesia, before it was finally picked up by British sailors in the late 17th century; with corresponding name changes of kechap, ketjap and catsup until the world finally settled on ketchup as the standard spelling, in the late 19th century.

The British loved the umami (savoury, meaty) flavours of these fermented sauces brought home by sailors although, like Indians who land in New Jersey in December find it difficult to ferment their idli batter, they were unable to recreate the warm, humid environmental conditions needed to ferment fish sauce. So they started experimenting with other umami-rich ingredients, like walnuts and mushrooms. They added vinegar as a preservative. British colonists took these upgraded recipes to American shores in the 18th century. A recipe for “mushroom catsup”, for instance, can be found in William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle, first published in 1817.

Our heroine, tomato, makes a rather late entry. Tomatoes are loaded with glutamates, a key component for umami flavour. This makes them a perfect vehicle for ketchup, so they should have been a natural choice. Except for one problem: Until the 1820s, these nightshade fruits in alarming red were believed to be toxic. For more on how that notion was shed, watch the video below. Once it was dispelled, however, tomatoes became such a dominant ketchup flavour that the word is almost redundant today. When was the last time you had a ketchup that wasn’t tomato?

One cannot write about ketchup without mentioning the industrialist HJ Heinz. The man was a pioneer. He perfected ketchup manufacture on a large scale, and the product that bears his name continues to dominate global market shares. He was one of the first industrialists to embrace electricity in his factory; he adopted the “continuous flow” line decades before Henry Ford popularised the assembly line concept for cars.

However, what truly matters in the processed food industry is that he was a pioneer when it came to purity. HJ Heinz was obsessed with hygiene — he demanded spotlessly clean factories, clear glass bottles to showcase the pure red product, and he wanted it made with no preservatives. The ingredients in his ketchup were quite simple: Tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, salt and spices. Using these and a few processing techniques, he created a shelf-stable product. The high acidity from the tomatoes and vinegar helped, as did the addition of sugar and salt (ingredients that reduce the availability of water for microbial growth).

Later food-preservation innovations such as pasteurisation, as well as narrow bottle openings and one-way valves that reduced the chances of accidental contamination by the consumer, kept preservatives at bay for this delicious product.

HJ Heinz, a pioneer in ketchup manufacturing, was very particular about purity of ingredients. Today, Heinz and a number of other ketchup manufacturers use additives such as artificial thickeners. (The Kraft Heinz Company)
HJ Heinz, a pioneer in ketchup manufacturing, was very particular about purity of ingredients. Today, Heinz and a number of other ketchup manufacturers use additives such as artificial thickeners. (The Kraft Heinz Company)

Fast forward to today. Heinz and a number of other ketchup manufacturers use high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in some of their formulations (though the original Heinz recipe still stands in the “organic” version of their product). Some companies use other not-so-wholesome ingredients such as sodium benzoate. That and HFCS have been shown to contribute to inflammation, obesity and other lifestyle conditions to an even greater degree than regular white sugar. Artificial thickeners like xanthan gum and acetylated distarch adipate are used instead of reducing an adequate number of ripe red tomatoes to a thick texture.

So, are you picking the right ketchup? For more on what to watch out for and why, get out your bottle, turn it over, and, as the non-Newtonian fluid grudgingly makes its way down the neck of the bottle, return to the video above.

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Sunday, November 28, 2021