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shameless pleading

Ketchup / Catsup

The red stuff.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the word “ketchup” originate? — Kana.

Good question, and I’m glad you asked it, because you’ve just reminded me that we’re out of ketchup around here.  (We seem to use the spelling “catsup” on lists at our house, but we’ll get to the various spellings in a moment.)  I also just realized that I answered this same question back in 1994, in one of my very first columns.  At three columns per week for the ensuing 15 years, that’s 2,340 columns ago, proving that I am nothing if not remarkably persistent.  Ad astra per caffeine, as we say.

OK, back to work before I become roadkill on Memory Lane.  I read a filler item in a newspaper a few years ago which cheerfully announced that salsa-in-a-jar had replaced catsup as America’s favorite condiment, but I didn’t believe it then and I still don’t.  I can’t imagine substituting salsa for catsup on the foods real Americans love, like cottage cheese.  OK, that was just Richard Nixon’s thing as far as we know, but dumping salsa on onion rings is, to me, like putting pineapple on pizza.  Sure, people do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

The funny thing about catsup is that there doesn’t seem to be any strict definition of the stuff.  The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, defines “ketchup” (apparently the preferred spelling in Britain) as “A liquor extracted from mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts, etc., used as a sauce.”  Mushrooms and walnuts?  Might as well throw in some tree frogs and minced wildebeest.  Here in the US of A, we make our catsup from tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, spices, and whatever’s on sale at the local chemical plant.  But according to Wikipedia, early American forms of catsup were made from oysters, mushrooms and other odd things, and more akin to Worchestershire sauce than our familiar thick “tomato” catsup.  There’s apparently something in the human spirit that can’t resist messing with catsup, because in 2000, the H.J. Heinz company, the world’s largest producer of catsup, introduced a line of brightly colored (including green, purple and pink) catsups.  They also proved that “flop” isn’t just the sound catsup makes when it hits the plate.

None of that weirdness can, however, hold a candle to the original catsup, which came to us from China via Malaysia, and was known as “ke-tsiap” or “kechap,” meaning roughly “fish sauce.”  Indeed, this “kechap” was from pickled fish and brine, and used as a dipping sauce.  Forms of this stuff first made it to Britain in the late 17th century, and as the ingredients varied over the next two centuries, the name blossomed from simply “ketsup” to “catchup” (still considered acceptable) to “catsup.”  All of these, of course, are nothing but phonetic approximations of the Chinese term, and none is more “proper” than the others (although Heinz spells it “ketchup”).  Interestingly, even folks who like to spell it “catsup” generally pronounce the word as “ketchup,” and if you encounter a person who insists on saying “cat-sup,” you’re in the presence of someone who would probably be happier if it were still made from pickled fish.

5 comments to Ketchup / Catsup

  • Elizabeth Lightwood

    The original stuff sounds rather like garum, which the Romans inexplicably regarded as food.

  • Ray Tackett

    The Chinese fish sauce sounds like what the Vietnamese call “Nuoc Mam”. In the mid-60s, the Nuoc Mam capital was Phan Thiet. There, they laid fish strips on bamboo racks and circulated boiling brine over the fish strips for several days.

    The result smelled like last week’s socks and was extremely salty. It was so concentrated and “fragrant” that Air Vietnam would allow the stuff only in the cargo hold and in sealed, unbreakable containers.

    Nuoc Mam was at least as ubiquitous as ketchup throughout the country. One could discern mealtimes in any village within 20 miles upwind.

    For westerners, a half-liter bottle is a lifetime supply. A teaspoon of the stuff spread over a large steak is pretty good — once.

    My buddies and I would mix it with most any C-ration meal in the hope of creating or disguising the basic Army flavor. Results varied according to individual taste, mostly bad.

    You hear all this from an enthusiastic ketchup user.

  • Craig Scheir

    I’ve been to England and New Zealand with other Americans who have asked for ‘Ketchup’ in a restaurant only to receive something much like Bar-B-Que or steak sauce. Presumably to put on their ‘chips’ aka ‘fries.’ To get American ‘Ketchup’, one must order ‘tomato sauce.’ I don’t know what to ask for if you really want ‘tomato sauce’ – perhaps ask for Bar-B-Que sauce!

  • Rik

    Ketchup comes from the Chinese word for tomato, which is fan ke, or ke, for short. Jup means sauce, so it is actually properly pronounced Ke-jup=Ketchup.

  • Catsup

    Ketcup just comes from catsup the word ketchup was made by hienz

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