“Mention ‘peach ketchup,’ and chances are you will be greeted by quizzical looks. Move on to mango or grilled-mushroom ketchup, and the expressions will probably ratchet up one level, to shaking heads and rolling eyes.
It’s not an illogical response, for to most Americans these are nonsense terms. After all, everybody knows what ketchup is — it’s that sweet-sour tomato sauce. Like fish sauce in Southeast Asia, this tomato condiment is fixed so firmly in the American culinary vernacular that it is often set on the table unbidden, with the unspoken assumption that it will be needed at some point in every meal.
In fact, the idea of ketchup as tomato sauce is so deeply ingrained in our national consciousness that it is enshrined in law. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the coveted label of ketchup can be worn only by products that are composed of some form of tomato.
But like so much else that seems immutable, ketchup defined solely as tomato based is a relatively recent development. Those seemingly far-out peach, mango and mushroom concoctions are actually closer to the original — and like tomato ketchup, they can be used on a wide variety of foods, including hamburgers and hot dogs.
The word ‘ketchup’ first showed up in the English language early in the 17th century. The leading contenders for the word’s ancestors are the Malay ‘keochiap’ and the Chinese ‘ke-tsiap,’ both of which refer to a type of fish brine. In either case, ketchup originated in Asia as a salty, fish-based sauce. When it first arrived in Europe, it was apparently made with anchovies.
Since fish brine was not a common ingredient in Europe, European makers of this early ketchup soon began to substitute vinegar for it. Sugar was added to counteract the vinegar’s acidity, and spices like cloves, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon were mixed in for flavor.
In those pre-refrigeration days, making something into ketchup was a way to preserve it, so every type of fruit, vegetable, nut and seafood became a candidate for the sauce.
But in the early 20th century, tomato ketchup began to elbow other varieties out of the public consciousness. Finally, as the many Asian-derived sauces that were highly popular in Victorian England began to fade from everyday cuisine, tomato ketchup joined Worcestershire sauce as one of the few survivors.
Now, though, American cooks, seeking inspiration, are reclaiming older traditions. Deconstructing familiar forms, they are able to be at once wildly creative and true to a culinary heritage. In the process, dishes like slaw, salsa and pesto have been liberated from their respective straight jackets of cabbage, tomato and basil. Ketchup has become the latest in this line of vehicles for chefs’ creativity.
Like professional chefs, home cooks can have fun pulling out the standard ingredients from ketchup but leaving the form recognizable. To provide a guideline, it seems fair to say that a ketchup is a chutney-like sauce that contains vinegar and spices and is usually based on a fruit, vegetable or seafood.
Like plain old bottled tomato ketchup, the unusual versions have myriad uses. Try them, for example, as accompaniments to roast pork or grilled chicken. Or defy the injunction that ketchup doesn’t go on steak by serving a grilled sirloin with smoky shiitake ketchup. Or to really set eyes rolling, serve up a completely deconstructionist meal: fruit ketchup, a tuna burger and sweet-potato fries.”