Word Origins – Ketchup

Last weekend, I was at a KFC, eating my favorite burger along with some fries and admiring the recipes of Colonel Harland Sanders (the man who founded KFC). As it was a weekend, the place was filled with people, eating their favorite delicacies and slurping their favorite Krushers.

So when I was returning the unused condiments  – ketchups, I realized how swell it is? It goes with everything; burgers, fries, wraps, wedges, chicken shotz and many other foods including our good old Indian delicacies; pakodas, samosas, paranthas and the likes.

And my curiosity gear kicked in. Why it is called a ketchup, what is the history of this word and how it came into being. Well, as I found out, answering these questions is a lot harder than posing them. But I’ll try:

The word “ketchup’ comes from keochiap (Amoy Dialect) meaning ‘brine of fish’. Yes, you read it right. The history of the word has nothing to do with tomatoes. Ketchup used to be made with something other than tomatoes. The recipe for ketchup has changed quite dramatically over time; tomatoes were only added to the recipe around 1800, and sugar even later, well after the Civil War.

In 1750-1850, ketchup meant a thin dark sauce made of fermented walnuts or sometimes fermented mushrooms. Mushroom ketchup is still produced by old-fashioned grocers. But walnut or mushroom aren’t the original ingredients of ketchup either. As Samuel Johnson tells us in his great Dictionary in 1755, English mushroom ketchups were just an attempt to imitate the taste of an earlier original sauce that came from Asia.

What was this Asian sauce? It’s clear from the earliest English recipes that the original ketchup was fish sauce, the stinky cooking sauce called nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, and made from salting and fermenting anchovies.Fermented food products have a long tradition in Asia. The first fermented condiments were thick pastes made of fermented meat or fish used as a flavoring for dishes like roast suckling pig. As widely known in the food industry, the Chinese have a longstanding habit of celebrating their food products in their poetry, and fermented sauces appear in the Elegies of the Chu State (楚辞), dating from before 300 BC.

The fermentation process, which was used for making fish pastes, was soon applied for fermenting other products like beans, and indeed fermented soy beans and soy bean pastes (from which soy sauce developed) were a major trade commodity throughout the Chinese empire by the late Han Dynasty (i.e. by 50 BCE or 100 BCE). Over the next millenium the popularity of fermented fish and meat products drastically declined in China while fermented soy bean products became more and more popular, possibly because soy products were cheaper to make, easier to transport, and allowed for a wider variety of possible tastes.

Thus in general, fish sauce either never really developed in China, or more likely died out, and is no longer mentioned in food histories and dictionaries by the Ming dynasty. Nonetheless, in modern times fish sauce is manufactured and eaten in China

Two chinese culinary historians, H.T Huang and Naomichi Ishige, argue that during the 17th and 18th centuries, fish sauce entered China by migration, carried by Chinese sea traders from Vietnam or Cambodia up the southeastern coast of China, into Canton and Fujian provinces and the cities of Guanggong (Canton), Chaozhou (Teochew), Xiamen (Amoy) and Fuzhou.

What was this fish sauce called? In modern Chinese, in Mandarin, it’s often called yu lu 鱼露 (‘fish dew’). But yu lu is a modern name, and these Chinese sailors, traders, and settlers weren’t speaking modern Mandarin. Many of them were speakers of Southern Min, a Chinese language (or dialect) of 46 million speakers, spoken in both Fujian and Guangdong provinces as well as in Taiwan and throughout Southeast Asia (and whose variants and subdialects are called Hokkien, Taiwanese, Teochiu, and Amoy dialect, among other names).

So what was this fish sauce called in the Southern Min dialect in the 18th century? It turns out it was called something like “ke-tchup”, “ge-tchup”, or “kue-chiap”, depending on the dialect. Here’s the entry for kôe-chiap 鲑汁 from a Southern Min to English dictionary compiled by missionaries in 1873, that gives pronunciations in various Southern Min subdialects:


The word is pronounced kôe-chiap in Quanzhou (listed above as Cn.) and kê-chiap in Zhangzhou (listed above as C.), two large Hokkien-speaking cities near Xiamen (Amoy) in Fujian province. Those of you who speak Southern Min or Cantonese dialects will recognize the last syllable of the word, chiap or tchup, as the word for ‘sauce’, written 汁 and pronounced zhi in Mandarin.

A modern (1982) dictionary, Mandarin to Southern-Min, confirms our evidence from the missionary dictionary, telling us that the first syllable 鲑 is an archaic word, pronounced “gué” in spoken Southern Min, and meaning a preserved fish. Over the years this character has changed its meaning and in modern times often means ‘salmon’.

It was James Murray, the famous editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who wrote the OED entry for this word in the Scriptorium in his back garden in 1889.

To know more about the modern story of how tomatoes became popular in the 19th century, how they were added to ketchup, how even later the recipe changed to replace fermentation by lots of vinegar and sugar to result in a kind of sweet and sour chutney has been nicely told in Andrew Smith’s Pure Ketchup.

It is quite bizarre now to know that a condiment, made from tomatoes today, comes packaged with a green label (signalling that it is vegetarian and consumable by vegetarians) has a history which includes fermented fish pastes made from fish entrails. But that’s the way languages work.