Now the Ketchup is the “tomato sauce par excellence”, but if I tell you that the first ketchup had nothing to do with tomatoes?
In the late 17th century, ketchup didn’t exist, and even not something similar. Historically there were European merchants, sailors, and military forces travelling through the entire Asian continent. In Southeast Asia, the most were British, and when these “invaders” started come back at home, they found themselves missing the distinctly savory-sweet flavor of the food abroad. Especially, they missed kê-tsiap, a dark condiment that might have been either Cantonese in origin and meaning roughly “eggplant juice,” or a Malaysian version of a fermented fish sauce. So they started trying to make something similar….
But what was the problem? They had no idea what was in it! So they tried to “study” the name, and started to tried replicate the recipe. Some varieties were made with fishy ingredients like oysters and anchovies, but other recipes included also walnuts, mushrooms, and various other vegetables you don’t normally associate with the tomato-red condiment. The first known recipe that really included the tomatoes was published in 1812 by horticulturist James Mease. He called tomatoes “love apples,” and his recipe included also a multitude of spices, a splash of brandy, and no vinegar or sugar.
In my opinion, I wouldn’t put it on a burger, or on my french fries. And you? In fact, it was meant as an additive to soups, other sauces, and to ladle over fish. It seems that anything could have been called “ketchup” in those days: the name was used to describe everything, from Indonesian soy sauce, a tamarind chutneys or vinegary pastes of unripe nuts.
Was the industrialization that codified ketchup to bring it in condiment history. With a new, mechanized means of fill identical ketchup bottles, the new condiment became a habit on the United States dinner tables. All perfect, but the problem was that tomatoes don’t grow all year round so, many manufacturers circumvented this unfortunate truth by loading their sauce with preservatives like coal tar and sodium benzoate. And that didn’t sit right with the ever-more health-conscious American public (in those days, of course….)
In 1905 Henry J. Heinz was convinced that if he could make a preservative-free ketchup that would last in the icebox, he could solve all the problems. So he used full, ripe tomatoes instead of scraps from the cannery floor, and increasing the vinegar content to never-before-seen levels. Once, he was a door-to-door horseradish salesman, and in one night become the man that launched a culinary empire known still today.
In 1896, the Heinz company was producing more than 60 different products, including some delicious 1890s specialities like plum pudding, India relish, euchred pickle, currant jelly, and celery soup. In the same year Heinz, on a train for New York City, saw an advertisement for a shoe store with “21 styles” of shoes. He was smitten with the specificity of the number, and after some thinking, choosed on “57” as the perfect number to describe how many food products his company produced. Even if there have never been 57 varieties of ketchup at Heinz, tha company have been producing far more than 57 varieties for more than 100 years….