The Origin of Ketchup - A Long Success Story (and almost without tomatoes)

Country Ketchup

Yes, you read that correctly.

But before you reach for the ketchup bottle in the fridge in complete shock, here's a brief reassurance. Your regular supermarket ketchup around the corner almost certainly contains, depending on the manufacturer, at least traces of tomatoes.

But it wasn't always like that.


Fishy Origins

Even though the origins of ketchup significantly date back as far as pre-Christian times and to this day it cannot be completely clarified where the sauce originated, there's one thing we know for sure:

At the beginning, ketchup had absolutely nothing to do with tomatoes.


Early investigations sought the sauce's origin in the Far East. Already in the 19th century, it was assumed that the term "ketchup" derives from Malay. However, a look into a Malay dictionary reveals that even there, the term is just a derivation, specifically from Chinese.

Indeed, in a particular Chinese dialect, the word kê-tsiap describes a thick sauce made from fermented fish. The crucial point about this derivation is that, according to linguists, this word is also an import into the Chinese language, likely originating from Vietnam.

But how do you get from a fish sauce to today's tomato ketchup?


Contrary to all etymology, the most probable origin story for one of the world's most beloved sauces is in Southeast Asia, specifically in Indonesia. Even today, a sauce based on black soybeans is made under the word "kecap".

Although the exact origins of the sauce that's now globally loved aren't known, Western awareness of the term dates back to the 17th century, when English merchants brought the sauce from Southeast Asia. In the following decades, a range of often very different sauces developed under the name "ketchup". These recipes were mostly based on oysters, mushrooms, walnuts, or red beets, and they were more like thick pastes that were diluted with other liquids depending on usage and preference.

As early as the mid-18th century, such ketchup was sold as a ready-made sauce in stores, not just produced as a family recipe for home consumption.

What united all these variations of the Asian-imported sauce in many cases was one thing:

Tomatoes were nowhere to be found.

Even though today most people equate ketchup with tomatoes without much questioning, these early European experiments and their millennia-long history of tomato-free sauce still persist. That's why you can still find the clear label "Tomato Ketchup" on bottles of Heinz, Hela & Co. as a differentiation from other forms of sauce that are hardly known today.


The Tomato

Although the originally South American tomatoes were known in Europe since the 16th century, back then no one would have thought of eating the fleshy fruits, let alone using them as a base for sauces. Tomatoes belong to the nightshade family, a group of plants that is commonly known for their toxicity among other things. In fact, tomatoes, like potatoes, tobacco, and belladonna, indeed contain the mildly toxic compound solanine. This substance is heat-resistant, so it doesn't break down during cooking or frying, and at around 400 milligrams, it can be lethal to humans and can cause health issues and poisoning symptoms at levels as low as 25 milligrams.

But no need to panic: the compound is found only in certain parts of the plant, and even then, only at certain times of the ripening cycle. As a simplified rule of thumb: if the tomato has green spots, those contain solanine.

In ripe tomatoes, the levels are negligible, and the actual amount of toxin in unripe parts of the fruit can still vary greatly. Fully green tomatoes, for example, contain between 9 and 32 milligrams of the toxin per 100g of fruit.

Historically, the tomato had the issue of being recognized as related to other nightshades, like the potato. The potato too, just like the tomato, was initially mostly kept as an ornamental plant and deemed poisonous because people didn't know how to properly prepare the tubers. In Germany, it wasn't until Friedrich the Second of Prussia in 1740 broke the farmers' caution by planting potato fields in Berlin and having soldiers "guard" them. The apparent value of the plants led the farmers to steal the potatoes from the fields and ultimately cultivate them on a large scale - all in line with the ruler's intentions.

Unlike the potato, the tomato managed to make its way into common knowledge literally with time, without such tricks. It was initially the Italians who began using the fruit of the rare ornamental plant as medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries. By 1719, there's evidence that Italians were eating tomatoes, and by the end of the 18th century, the rest of the Europeans had shed their aversion to the tomato.

Tomato sauce didn't take long to emerge after that, and the first recipe for "ketchup" based on pureed tomatoes appeared in 1812 in England. What set it apart from common sauces was primarily the addition of vinegar, which allowed the sauce to ferment and remain preserved for a long time. The "tomato ketchup" was born.


From Zero to Hero

But even though the initial aversion had faded, it was still a long journey for tomato ketchup to reach the unrivaled position of being the world's most popular condiment, and some milestones on this journey were surprisingly quirky.

As mentioned earlier, during the time of the first ketchup, there were already many other sauces with the same label that were being produced and distributed on a large scale. In contrast, ketchup had spread primarily in the United States by the mid-19th century, but at this point, it was still predominantly homemade.

The turning point, as often is the case, came through efficiency. When large-scale industrial production of tomato preserves began in the mid-19th century, crushed tomatoes, as expected, were produced as a byproduct – also known as the base of ketchup. Instead of discarding these, a multitude of manufacturers had the idea to collect this byproduct and use it on a large scale to produce the beloved tomato ketchup and sell it for additional profits – successfully.

Among these ketchup pioneers was the company Heinz, which around 1900 managed to become the undisputed leader in the United States. By 1905, the Heinz company alone was producing 5 million ketchup bottles per year.

Henry John Heinz was so confident in the quality of his sauce that he spent his free time going to bars and pubs to search for ketchup bottles from his own company. When he found one, he would buy the bottle from the owner and take it away, convinced that the presence of his products in such establishments would harm his brand.

While ketchup consumption boomed in the 1900s in the USA, it was hardly widespread in Germany at the beginning of the century and was only available through imports from abroad in specialty stores. The first German ketchup we owe to the current food manufacturer Zeisner, which began production in Bremen in 1937. However, due to World War II and the poverty of the post-war period, ketchup remained a rarity in German kitchens for a while, but the influence of stationed American and British soldiers soon made tomato ketchup appealing to people in Germany as well, and it didn't take long for ketchup to become associated with a typical German dish - the currywurst.

Starting in 1954, beginning with Kraft, more and more ketchup producers, especially from the USA, entered the West German market and took advantage of the increasing demand in the 1960s.

Ketchup also gained popularity in the GDR (East Germany). It quickly became part of the so-called "under-the-counter goods" - the goods that were not always available for purchase and were primarily traded under the table. In contrast to the development in the USA, many East Germans turned away from factory-produced goods and went back to self-production. A large part of the tomatoes eaten in the GDR came from the citizens' own gardens.

The first widely available commercial GDR ketchup was produced by Werder and was especially popular in East Germany and adjacent countries of the Eastern Bloc. Even today, there is lively nostalgia, and attempts to replicate the old recipe are numerous.

While in both parts of Germany, ketchup was primarily considered a luxury item, the situation on the other side of the Atlantic was quite different at the same time. There, due to the high number of producers, ketchup quickly spread even to the lowest income brackets. The affordability of the tomato-based condiment was such an important factor that even politics tried to capitalize on it. In 1981, during the administration of President Reagan, the Department of Health and Human Services was tasked with the challenging job of reducing the cost of daily meals in school cafeterias. The solution: ketchup. In a rush, a new law was proposed that would officially classify the affordable condiment as a vegetable. Thus, adding ketchup would have covered a significant portion of the legislated vegetable requirement in every school meal. However, this law never progressed beyond a proposal and was quickly shot down by the opposition. The children could continue eating vegetables.

With steadily growing international demand after World War II and the Cold War, ketchup soon secured the title of world's most popular condiment, and for a long time, it seemed that nothing could ever stop this triumph.

However, in 2020, the king of condiments had to face a hard blow.

In the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which still hit the USA, one of the main consumers, there was a ketchup shortage. Consumers were forced to reconsider and soon found their new favorite: mayonnaise.

Whether this trend is only circumstantial or reflects a long-term change in consumer preferences remains to be seen.

In principle, ketchup is divided into 3 specific variants in the USA and Europe today: tomato ketchup, spiced ketchup, and curry ketchup.


Tomato Ketchup is probably the most internationally recognized variant and accounts for approximately 70% of all ketchup bottles in Germany. What distinguishes it is the high proportion of tomatoes used, which are blended after being pureed with vinegar, sugar, garlic, onions, and other spices and thickeners.

What sets Spiced Ketchup apart from classic tomato ketchup is mainly the addition of other flavor carriers such as cucumbers, bell peppers, or chili peppers, which replace a portion of the otherwise used tomato paste. This includes related tomato-based sauces like steak and barbecue sauces.

Curry Ketchup is very popular in Germany and makes up about 20% of the consumed ketchup here. It is based on regular tomato ketchup enriched with appropriately matched curry spice blends.


In addition to the well-known recipes, there are still some exotic oddballs today, such as Indonesian banana ketchup. The production and recipes are largely identical to regular tomato ketchup, except that tomatoes are replaced with bananas.

Recipes for pumpkin ketchup, following the same principle, are also quite popular.

Green ketchup is becoming more and more well-known and sought after. But don't worry, this ketchup is not made from green tomatoes and therefore does not contain solanine. Instead, spinach and green bell peppers provide the contrasting color for this type of popular sauce.

In the early 2000s, Heinz came up with the idea of producing ketchup in other colors, using only traditional tomato ketchup and safe food colors. The result included colors like green, purple, pink, orange, and blue.

So, tomato ketchup enjoys considerable popularity, and ever-new alternatives to traditional tomato-based ketchup are attempting to compete with the classic. The original European recipes based on mussels, fish, and the like have largely disappeared from most people's daily lives.


From Hero to Zero (Sugar)

What stands out is that all of these recipes, alongside their vegetable base and vinegar for fermentation and preservation, share one main ingredient: sugar.

As is often the case, sugar in ketchup primarily serves two functions: to enhance flavor and incidentally to bulk up the final product, which basically means that less of other ingredients are needed per bottle when sugar is added. And this proportion can sometimes be quite significant. In traditional ketchup from the USA, for example, you can find up to 24 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters of ketchup, and even in commercial brands with much less sugar, the content is usually well above the 10% mark.

For comparison: A standard sugar cube contains about 3 grams of sugar.

If you want to enjoy your ketchup with significantly less sugar, as a German, your best bet is to turn to foreign producers. Stonewall Kitchen's Country Ketchup from Maine, for instance, contains just 27 grams of sugar on 517 grams of ketchup, which is just over 5%. Yet, this doesn't negatively impact the flavor experience at all.



For those who want their ketchup to be completely sugar-free, often the only option is to make ketchup at home, just like in the good old days. A popular alternative to refined sugar is incorporating sweet fruits like pureed dates or apricots, which still give the ketchup its typical fruity-sweet flavor. Honey is also a popular natural alternative.

Theoretically, homemade ketchup can also be made completely without sugar or the addition of other sweeteners by simply compensating with more tomato paste. However, this traditional tomato ketchup will lose its distinctly sweet flavor.


Miracle Worker: Ketchup

Even though everyone knows ketchup as a tasty condiment for fries & co., the red sauce also has a whole host of interesting and helpful properties that often go unnoticed.

An example from everyday life:

Who hasn't struggled to get ketchup out of the bottle? The miracle remedy is often called tapping or shaking the bottle. Ketchup is a so-called "non-Newtonian fluid". This oddly sounding term simply means that ketchup is a liquid that changes its viscosity under pressure or tension, unlike, for example, water. If the ketchup remains calm and unmoved in the bottle for a while, it becomes thick and viscous, and sometimes it's almost impossible to get it out of the bottle without using utensils. By tapping or shaking it, you subject the ketchup to tension that makes it become more liquid and therefore easier to pour out of the bottle.

By the way, ketchup is not the only substance with this property, and the same behavior can also be found in toothpaste, honey, melted butter, shampoo, blood, quicksand, and granules.

Far from physics, ketchup also has some surprising everyday uses and is turning into a kind of Swiss Army knife among condiments.

Perhaps the most well-known extra ability of ketchup is its ability to neutralize odors. In film and television, it often serves for slapstick humor when people fill a bathtub full of ketchup to get rid of a skunk smell. A much more practical use for this ability, at least here, is in pet care. Instead of shampoo, give your four-legged friend a ketchup treatment, and the unwanted smell will disappear in no time.

And for those who don't want to use the sauce just for eating, you should also reach for the ketchup bottle during the subsequent dishwashing – at least if you use pots and pans made of copper. The acid contained in ketchup is perfect for removing dirt from copper objects, but it also works, for the same reason as cola, for cleaning jewelry, removing water stains from sinks & co., or even for car washing.

Let's get back to hair care for a moment.

Who doesn't enjoy swimming in the summer? Unfortunately, at least for those with blonde hair, this can quickly become a problem, and before you know it, your golden hair is suddenly green. The reason for this, as folklore has it, is chlorine – at least partially. Chlorine itself doesn't discolor hair. The green color comes from copper dissolved in the pool water. Chlorine, together with water, causes copper to oxidize and take on the typical green color. This copper then binds to the hair's proteins. This happens to everyone, but it's much less noticeable with darker hair colors. However, that doesn't mean people with light hair have to avoid the pool. Simply massage ketchup into the hair like conditioner while showering and rinse it out. Just as with cookware, the acid in ketchup dissolves the copper particles and thus removes the green color from the hair.

In some rural areas of Eastern Europe, ketchup-like pastes and purees made from tomatoes and ketchup are still occasionally used as traditional preservatives. The vinegar contained in these pastes acts as a preservative, just like in regular ketchup, and dishes that are submerged and stored in these pastes also benefit directly from this effect.


As you can see, ketchup is a true all-rounder. So, next time you go shopping, feel free to grab an extra bottle or jar. The possibilities are many.