The condiment that took over planet Earth
By Nury Vittachi
We had a family of Americans to dinner. Conversation flowed like wine. Then one of the kids asked for ketchup, and I said we didn't have any.
Their eyes opened perceptibly wider. "You don’t have ketchup?" the mother gasped in disbelief.
"We don't have ketchup," I repeated. "Sorry."
They were as shocked as if I had said: "We always have human sacrifices between cheese and dessert." (In fact, we are cutting right back on human sacrifices because of the economic downturn.)
After a moment, the mother laughed it off. "We always have ketchup. It's an American thing," she said.
Let me tell you a true story I didn't tell them. More than four centuries ago, a Chinese immigrant living in Penang, Malaysia, made a pungent, salty fish sauce to serve with rice. Diners in the local cafes got hooked on it. The woman, let's call her Mrs Kuo, was from Xiamen in China, and named the stuff ke-tsup ("fish juice" in Hokkien).
In the 1600s, sailors arrived in Penang from a distant, tragic island where the people had nothing to eat at all, subsisting on a strange, tasteless substance called "British food".
The starving men went wild over Asia's incredibly tasty meals and adored Mrs Kuo's ke-tsup, probably because she never told them it was made from old fish.
The main activity of Western civilization in the 1700s was trying to recreate this sauce, triggering the industrial revolution. They tried everything from grapes to blueberries, but the ones that sold best contained mushrooms and anchovies.
They pronounced it "ketchup" but intellectuals feared the word looked too Asian. British food writers changed it to "catchup" and Americans "catsup". But the public girded its collective loins and stuck with "ketchup".
After another 100 years of experimentation, American housewives added tomatoes and a man called Henry Heinz started mass-producing it. It became the most popular foodstuff in the United States, and Mr Heinz became rich.
It went right to the top. The US Congress debated it and the Food and Drug Administration issued laws specifying exactly how gloppy it should be (the Gloppiness Quotient). In 1981, the US Department of Food and Agriculture recommended ketchup be classified as a vegetable when served as part of school meals. To me, this only served to make it clear that members of the department should be classified as vegetables.
By 2004, the Heinz family was so rich that one member, John Kerry, stood as Democratic candidate for President. The Republicans, worried that the association between Kerry and the nation's main foodstuff would give him an advantage, issued their own ketchup, called W's.
Today, Heinz ketchup has come home, and is available in supermarkets throughout Asia.
But you know what? Mrs Kuo's descendants had not been idle.
While Westerners had turned her condiment into a sweet red paste, the original ke-tsup had grown into a range of more than 50 different Asian condiments.
Many of them have marvelously complex flavours, with salt fish, fresh-chopped chilli, abalone, X.O brandy, tomatoes, finely-diced Westerners and a dozen other ingredients. Some make your eyes water. Some blow the top of your head off. Some burn holes in your enamelware.
So when I said, "We don't have ketchup", I actually meant something quite different. We DO have ketchup.
But not as Westerners know it.