From a preserved fish sauce called kê-chiap in southern China, the world’s favourite sauce evolved; tomatoes only entered the recipe in the 19th century. Americans added the sugar.
Language Matters
by Lisa Lim
Language Matters
by Lisa Lim

When China invented ketchup in 300BC, and how it morphed from a preserved fish sauce to sweet tomato gloop

The name of the world’s favourite sauce originated with Min Chinese, entered the lexicon in Indonesia, and from there was eventually absorbed into English via British India; along the way the sauce evolved dramatically

Before you next tell your children to “stop that Western habit of covering everything with ketchup!”, consider that the origins of this tangy sauce – and its name – actually lie in Asia.

The original ketchup was fish sauce, made from salted, fermented anchovies. Fermented meat or fish sauces had been in existence in China since about 300BC. By 50-100BC, demand for fish pastes in the country had fallen drastically, with fermented bean products having become a major trade commodity.

But not elsewhere: food scholars traditionally divide East Asia into two distinct condiment regions, separated by a bean-fish isogloss: Southeast Asia, mainly using fermented fish (think of Vietnamese nuoc mam, Thai nam pla, Filipino patis)and Northeast Asia, using mainly fermented beans.

An 1890s advertisement for a commercially made American ketchup, forerunner of what we still use today.
Fish sauce re-entered China in the 17 th and 18th centuries, brought from Vietnam and Cambodia by Chinese traders up the coast to Canton and Fukien province (today’s Guangdong and Fujian). Those involved in the trade were largely speakers of the Southern Min languages of those provinces; 鮭汁 (preserved) fish sauce” was pro­nounced kôe-chiap in Quanzhou and kê-chiap in Zhangzhou, major cities near Amoy, in Fukien – and this is the name that spread.

Fukienese traders also took kê-chiap to Indonesia, where it became kecap/ketjap, and the word gradually generalised to encompass sweet and savoury soy sauces, and sauces in general.

How did a modified version of the sauce and its Asian name enter the Anglo world? Through British trade and travel in the region. The 1690 Dictionary of the Canting Crew describes catchup as “a high East-India sauce”.

More specific origins are found in British merchant Charles Lockyer’s 1711 account of trade in India, in which he claims the best ketchup came from Tonkin (Tonqueen, in northern Vietnam), and in a 1732 English recipe for “Ketchup, in Paste. From Bencouline in the East Indies” (Bengkulu being in Sumatra), where the British had a trading post in the 1690s.

An extract from merchant Charles Lockyer’s 1711 account of trade in India, in which he claims the best ketchup came from Tonkin (Tonqueen, northern Vietnam).

Ketchup subsequently adopted a more British flavour: a 1742 London-published cookbook adds shallots and mushrooms. Mushrooms moved from a supporting to a main role, and from 1750 to 1850 ketchup came to mean any thin, dark sauce made from mushrooms – or walnuts.

It was not until the early 19th century that tomatoes made an appearance: an 1817 recipe for tomata catsup still included anchovies but, by the 1850s, fish was no longer in the sauce and, in 1890, American commercial manufacturers increased the proportion of sugar to create the flavour that is familiar across the globe today.