How the West came from behind to ketchup with the East.

Trade. History. Language. And how the word “ketchup” spread from Asia to the West (really!).


ketchup tomatoes1-Minute NomNom

Take a look at a ketchup bottle. It’s likely they don’t just say “ketchup” on the label, but “tomato ketchup”. Isn’t “tomato” unnecessary? After all, we don’t say “mustard mayonnaise” (even though mustard is a key ingredient) or “egg mayonnaise” (except when we are making an egg sandwich with mayo).

tomato ketchup, garlic dressing, mustard - Set of plastic bottles with different seasonings - tomato ketchup, yellow mustard and garlic dressing isolated on white background with reflection effectWhat if it was because ketchup is actually a type of sauce, and tomato refers to such a sauce that is made with tomatoes? Just as “honey mustard” or “Dijon mustard” refers to variations of mustard?

That in fact is precisely what happened. Ketchup did not used to have tomatoes and Stanford professor of linguistics and computer science, Dan Jurafsky, has traced its origins to the southern coastal regions of China to a fermented fish sauce that has existed from at least the 5th century.

Ketchup originated from the southern coastal regions of China - Close-up of East and Southeast Asia in the colorful world map.This fermented fish sauce was called 鲑汁. Today it is pronounced as gui zhi in Mandarin, but at that time, the dialects of that region pronounced as “ke-tchup”, or “ge-tchup”, “kue-chiap” (the “鲑” which used to mean a pickled or salted fish has since evolved to mean “salmon”, but 汁 remains the catchall word for sauce, juice and gravy).

Subsequently, the word “ketchup” mades its way to the West when …

“In the 17th century, English and Dutch sailors and traders traveled to Asia… and they brought home barrels of this Chinese fish sauce… The sailors, probably hoping to perk up their hardtack, quickly adopted the fishy ketchup, and merchants saw the opportunity to sell an expensive and exotic sauce from Asia to Europeans…Tomatoes were added to ketchup by the British, and the Americans added sugar laterBy the 19th century, the British were making their own ketchup, adding tomatoes but still relying on anchovies for flavor… Eventually, tastes changed and the anchovies were out… And so in England, ketchup lost the fish and acquired tomatoes, and much later on, the Americans added sugar…” (Source: NPR)

… giving us the tomato ketchup that we are all familiar with today.

Second Helpings

In that respect, (tomato) ketchup and the Portuguese egg tart share something in common. They are both examples of how food and language spread from one part of the world to the rest of the world through global trade.

delicious portuguese egg tart on wood backgroundThe Portuguese egg tart spread went worldwide through the Portuguese Empire of old, which was the world’s first global empire. The Empire’s  colonizers brought the Portuguese egg tart from its roots in Lisbon to its colonies across South America, to Africa to Asia (read all about how this happened in the 1-Minute NomNom “The tart and science of sailing“).

The only difference? Portuguese egg tart went from West to East, while ketchup went from East to West. For scholars, that might say a lot about what we know about the history of great trading centers. But to us who love good food, we are just glad our tastebuds get to “catch up” with foods from all around the world.

Time to ketchup with some good food?


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Like this? Ketchup with us every day liking me to discover more. All you need is a minute a day to explore the world’s marvels through the phenomenon of food!

photos: in order – depositiphotos/magoneSergeyNivensscanrail; istockpoto/fpdress; depositphotos/bergamontWitthayaP


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