How Ketchup Evolved from Fish to Tomato

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The history of ketchup, from ancient fish to tomato.


The Secret History of Ketchup: From Ancient Fish Sauce to Tomato


The Ancient Origins of Ketchup

Ketchup, the beloved condiment that graces our burgers, hot dogs, and fries, has a surprisingly long and complex history. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient Chinese, who created a fermented fish sauce called “ke-tsiap” over 2,000 years ago. Made from fish entrails, soybeans, and salt, this sauce was a staple in Chinese cuisine and eventually made its way to Malaysia and Indonesia (Smith, 1996).


Sailing Across the Globe

As trade routes expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, British and Dutch sailors discovered this salty, umami-rich sauce and brought it back to Europe. European cooks began experimenting with the recipe, incorporating local ingredients like mushrooms, walnuts, and even anchovies (Smith, 1996). The name “ketchup” evolved from the original “ke-tsiap” and began to encompass a variety of savory sauces in European cuisine.


Enter the Tomato

Tomatoes were introduced to Europe in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that they found their way into ketchup recipes. British horticulturist James Mease is credited with publishing the first tomato ketchup recipe in 1812, which used tomato pulp, spices, and brandy (Mease, 1812). American settlers quickly embraced this new tomato ketchup, and by the mid-19th century, it had become a popular condiment in the United States.


The Rise of Heinz

In 1876, entrepreneur Henry John Heinz began bottling and selling his own tomato ketchup, using a recipe that included ripe tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, and a unique blend of spices. Heinz’s ketchup stood out for its smooth consistency and rich flavor, and it quickly gained popularity. The iconic glass bottle with its distinctive octagonal shape was introduced in 1890, and the Heinz brand became synonymous with ketchup (Heinz, n.d.).


Ketchup Facts: Stranger Than Fiction

Presidential Passion: U.S. President Richard Nixon was known for his love of ketchup, particularly on cottage cheese. This unusual combination became one of his favorite snacks during his time in office (SfGate, 1999).

A Medical Miracle? In the early 19th century, some American doctors believed that tomatoes had medicinal properties and prescribed ketchup as a remedy for various ailments, including indigestion and diarrhea (Smith, 1996).

Ketchup’s Slow Flow: Ketchup has a unique flow property known as “shear-thinning.” This means that it becomes less viscous when stress is applied, allowing it to flow more easily. However, this also means that it can be frustratingly slow to pour from a glass bottle. According to Heinz, the optimal pouring speed is 0.028 miles per hour (Heinz, n.d.).

57 Varieties: The famous “57 Varieties” slogan on Heinz ketchup bottles has nothing to do with the number of ketchup varieties. In fact, founder Henry John Heinz chose the number 57 arbitrarily because he thought it sounded catchy. At the time, the company was actually producing more than 60 products (Heinz, n.d.).

Ketchup Ice Cream: In 2018, a gelato shop in Ireland created a ketchup-flavored ice cream in honor of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who is known for his love of the condiment. The unusual flavor received mixed reviews, with some fans loving it and others finding it too strange for their taste buds (McCarthy, 2018).

Ketchup Today

Now, ketchup is a staple condiment around the world, and its primary ingredient is still the humble tomato. However, variations on the classic recipe continue to emerge, with gourmet and artisanal ketchups featuring unique flavors like sriracha, curry, and truffle. Whether you’re a fan of the classic tomato ketchup or enjoy experimenting with new flavors, there’s no denying that this versatile condiment has come a long way from its ancient fish sauce origins.

Fact Sources:

Heinz. (n.d.). Our history.

Mease, J. (1812). Archives of useful knowledge. Volume 2. Retrieved from

Smith, A. (1996). Pure ketchup: A history of America’s national condiment. University of South Carolina Press

McCarthy, D. (2018). This ketchup ice cream is here to confuse your taste buds. Food & Wine.

SfGate. (1999). Nixon relished his role as food trendsetter.