You might think that ketchup is one of the most American condiments you own. You probably grew up putting ketchup on your eggs (and maybe on cottage cheese) and staining all of your white shirts. Ninety-seven percent of American households have it in their fridges, and Heinz sells 10 billion ounces of ketchup per year. To put that in perspective, that’s three bottles per American per year. But like so many other items on your table, ketchup (or “catsup” if you want to take it there) was something the US originally imported from England. And its roots go back much further than that: Ketchup is a product of British colonialism.
Have you ever wondered why Heinz isn’t just called “ketchup”? It’s specifically labeled as “tomato ketchup,” even though the tomato part is clearly visible through their glass and plastic bottles. Ketchup, like many of our favorite foods, was adopted from another culture. It was a popular fermented fish sauce from China’s southern Fujian province and is derived from the Hokkien Chinese word ke-tchup, kôechiap, or kê-tsiap. The most likely botched pronunciation of the word is how we got “catsup” and “catchup,” but how did we get from fish to tomato?
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