spice history

Ketchup or Catsup? Mr. Burns was Right to Be Confused!

By Andrew Hendricks

Originally, was it really called ketchup or catsup? Is there even difference? Is tomato ketchup a redundant term? What other kind of ketchup would there be but tomato?

Well, it turns out that our condiment of choice for French fries, hamburgers, and hot dogs has a very un-American origin that begins with our historical ancestors having a sparse pantry and really boring, bland diets.

We all know how the spice trade dominated the ancient world and this trend would continue all the way from BCE to the 17th and 18th century AD, where desire for the pricey, tasty stuff led directly to Spanish discovery of the Americas. To understand why spices were so sought after, one has to remember that for most of human history, unless you were fabulously wealthy, most of your meals were likely to be as bland as a modern British cuisine (that's right, I said it). Even to our ancestors, this was unacceptable.

To put the history more dramatically, The Spice House explains: “That ground pepper you shake on your salad was once worth its weight in gold; the nutmeg you grate onto holiday eggnog once fueled a war that gained Long Island for England.”

So with spices being such an extravagant luxury, what's a poor pleb supposed to do to get a little flavor in their meals? The answer is likely to come more quickly if you're of Scandinavian, Pacific Islander, or Chinese ancestry. If all you want is a little tangy-ness to your meal, there's no reason to sail halfway around the world risking life and limb—just get some eye-wateringly ripe fish juice. Duh!

Even today, your Filipino friend might eschew your bright red ketchup for a nice pungent spoonful of Budu. A few thousand miles to the north, in Iceland you can get Hákarl, a shark-based, fermented delicacy described by The Wall Street Journal (in perhaps the understatement of the year) as having an “acquired taste.”

So while fermenting foods has been a historic solution to awakening our taste-buds, it wasn't until the 17th century that ketchup's direct ancestor was created and named. While there are competing theories, most etymologists think ketchup's roots can be traced to its Chinese origins. This makes both early European and American usage of both catsup and ketchup Anglicized pronunciations of of the Chinese word for a condiment made from "brine of pickled fish or shell-fish,” ke-tsiap, or kê-chiap. Much of the lexicography regarding ketchup can also be traced more directly to the a Malay word (which was also borrowed from the above Chinese origin), however this proto-ketchup was a catch-all term for any fermented fish-sauce.

Part of our misremembered history of the supposed difference between catsup and ketchup can be blamed on the ketchup brand wars, as was depicted on AMC's On Mad Men. Pitching an advertising strategy to Heinz,  gung-ho copywriter and account-woman, Peggy Olson, waxes poetic on why Heinz ketchup is better than catsup.

Catsup-branded products at the frequently time came in larger containers than Heinz and Hunts. It’s cheaper, but tastes just like ketchup,” our heroic capitalist begins, “Now, we know that’s not true. But that’s what your competitors are saying, over and over. And they’re selling their watered down, flavorless sauce by pretending that they’re you. It makes you angry, doesn’t it?”

Despite the real life success of ad-persons like the fictitious Peggy Olson, catsup was just as generic a catchall term for variety of fish, mushroom, relish and tomato based-sauces, and the name ketchup evolved along with the changing recipes, according to a wide cross-section of etymological dictionaries. There is no agreed upon difference between catsup and ketchup. Hunt's, the second most popular ketchup in America, was originally named ketchup, unlike the most popular ketchup: Heinz.

It is a little-known fact that Heinz was originally launched for market as “Heinz Tomato Catsup.” They changed very quickly to “ketchup” in an effort to set their product aside from their competitor catsup brands which were currently experiencing a decline in popularity. Del Monte also used the term catsup, however they did not change their spelling until 1988, long after ketchup had already won the brand war in America's hearts and minds.  Heinz and Hunt's were smart enough to see the condiments on the wall early, but I guess you could say it took Del Monte a bit longer to ketchup.