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The Fishy Origins of Ketchup

Nothing is as American as the ketchup you use to top your hot dog at a baseball game on a hot summer day, right? Well, we have some bad news. America’s favorite squeeze bottle of tomato-red condiment that’s in every diner across our great nation is definitely Chinese. And not the-bottle’s-made-in-China Chinese. Nope. Ketchup is originally from China. And that original ketchup wasn’t even made with tomatoes. It was made with fish guts.

The first recorded mention of ketchup, a catch-all table condiment adored by all (except Chicagoans on hot dogs), dates all the way back to 6th century China, where the standard recipe put it more in the fermented, salted fish intestine and bladder paste category than the tangy-sweet sauce category.

It was popular throughout Southeast Asia from that time onward, so when British and Dutch explorers and traders made it out there in the 17th century, they naturally tried it. And they LOVED it. Apparently, it was great with everything, so they brought it back home to Western Europe and began modifying the recipe for their own tastes and times. Some added sweeteners, like strawberries and peaches, while others added body to the concoction with beer, mushrooms and walnuts. But whatever the recipe, ketchup was a mainstay on the European table just as it had been on the Asian one.

Which, of course, meant that when the Brits and Dutch started moving to North America, so too did their ketchup. In the early 1800s, American horticulturist, scientist and condiment pioneer James Mease decided to add tomatoes to the mix, as the fruit is an American native and provides a great tangy-juicy-sweet kick to just about anything.

By the end of the century, Mease’s ketchup recipes were the standard, and the New York Tribute called ketchup “America’s national condiment” (again, sorry Chicago). It’s been a long road, but we’re glad ketchup made it here. We’re glad Mease put some tomatoes in it.


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