Everyone knows the Chinese invented gunpowder, the compass, papermaking, and printing. In China, people call these innovations 'The Four Great Inventions' (四大发明 - sì dà fā míng).
Most people don't know the fifth great Chinese invention, however.
Yes, that's right. Ketchup was first made in China.
Ketchup comes from the Hokkien Chinese word, kê-chiap. The original ketchup was fish sauce, made from salted, fermented anchovies. Fermented meat or fish sauces had been in existence in China since about 300BC. By 50-100BC, demand for fish pastes in the country had fallen drastically, with fermented bean products having become a major trade commodity.
Fukienese traders also took kê-chiap to Indonesia, where it became kecap/ketjap, and the word gradually generalized to encompass sweet and savoury soy sauces, and sauces in general.
Image: Little Things
How did a modified version of the sauce and its Asian name enter the Anglo world? Through British trade and travel in the region. The 1690 Dictionary of the Canting Crew describes catchup as “a high East-India sauce”.
More specific origins are found in British merchant Charles Lockyer’s 1711 account of trade in India, in which he claims the best ketchup came from Tonkin (Tonqueen, in northern Vietnam), and in a 1732 English recipe for “Ketchup, in Paste. From Bencouline in the East Indies” (Bengkulu being in Sumatra), where the British had a trading post in the 1690s.
Ketchup subsequently adopted a more British flavor: a 1742 London-published cookbook adds shallots and mushrooms. Mushrooms moved from a supporting to a main role, and from 1750 to 1850 ketchup came to mean any thin, dark sauce made from mushrooms – or walnuts.
It was not until the early 19th century that tomatoes made an appearance: an 1817 recipe for tomato catsup still included anchovies but, by the 1850s, fish was no longer in the sauce and, in 1890, American commercial manufacturers increased the proportion of sugar to create the flavour that is familiar across the globe today.
Today the ketchup industry generates 4.5 billion USD. It's enjoyed by people all over the world. The other 'four great inventions' are clearly inferior. Gunpowder is used for killing. Compasses have been replaced by GPS. And papermaking and printing are obsolete in the digital world.
The power of ketchup, however, will persist!
Sources: National Geographic, SCMP, Slate
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