Believe it or not, it is derived from a a centuries-old Chinese recipe @

PLAYING CATCH-UP WITH KETCHUP

August 25, 1991|By Steven Raichlen

It's hard to imagine American food without ketchup. Backyard barbecues and Fourth of July picnics would be sorry affairs without it. Last year, Americans consumed over 65 million

gallons of this sanguine condiment, enough for every man, woman and child in this country to have 36 ounces a year.

To most Americans, ketchup is as modern and American as baseball. You might be surprised to learn that ketchup originated in China and that the recipe is more than 200 years old.

The term ketchup (also catsup and catchup) derives from ket-tsiap, a Chinese pickled fish sauce. British seafarers encountered the sauce in Malaysia in the 18th century. Naturally, they brought samples back for their compatriots to taste.

English chefs tried to duplicate the flavor of ket-tsiap, using local ingredients, such as walnuts and mushrooms. By 1748, the condiment was so popular that the the author of a "Housekeeper's Pocketbook" cautioned the housekeeper "never to be without [it]."

Eighteenth century ketchup would have been unrecognizable to the modern American palate. One recipe, published in "The Experienced English Housekeeper" in 1792, called for red wine, anchovies, shallots, ginger and "two quarts of old strong beer." The book's author guaranteed that this ketchup would stay good for seven years.

Another English cookbook, "The Cook's Oracle" (1823), provided recipe for "dogsup," made from freshly gathered mushrooms. In 19th century New England, you could find ketchups brewed from cranberries, gooseberries, elderberries, currants and even grapes. Tomatoes didn't enter ketchup until the late 18th century.

Their absence can be explained by the fact that until relatively recently, tomatoes were considered toxic. In 1830, one Robert Johnson, a man before his time, brashly devoured a raw tomato on the steps of a Philadelphia courthouse. The onlookers predicted he would be dead within 24 hours, writes food historian James Trager, but to their shock, he survived.

Popular superstition held that tomatoes required prolonged cooking to rid them of their poisons. What better use for cooked tomatoes than ketchup? Thus reasoned a young man from Sharpsburg, Pa., in 1869. At the age of 25, he began peddling homemade pickles and condiments. His name was Henry Heinz. Heinz pioneered the wide-based, slender-necked bottle ketchup is commonly sold in today. Last year, Heinz's worldwide ketchup sales exceeded 47 million gallons.

America's young chefs are taking a fresh look at ketchup. Frank McClelland of Boston's swank restaurant L'Espalier serves a mango ketchup with barbecued lobster. Mark Militello of Mark's Place in Miami created a smoked tomato ketchup to accompany grilled duck. Below are recipes for traditional tomato ketchups for modern fruit ketchups.

Tomato ketchup

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, most households made their own ketchup. The reason was simple: Commercial bottled ketchup didn't become available until after the Civil War.

2 35-ounce cans peeled tomatoes

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, diced (about 1 cup)

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 to 3/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 to 3/4 cup tarragon vinegar

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1 tablespoon prepared mustard

1 scant teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Strain the tomatoes, reserving the juice. Cut each tomato in half and squeeze out the seeds. You should have 4 cups tomatoes.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Cook the onion and garlic over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Add the remaining ingredients, plus 1 cup reserved tomato liquid, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer the ketchup for 1 hour, adding liquid as necessary to keep the mixture moist.

Puree the ingredients in a blender, adding water as necessary to thin the mixture to the consistency of conventional ketchup. Correct the seasoning and put the ketchup in sterile jars.

Sugarless ketchup

Makes 3 cups.

This recipe was inspired by a dish at the Five Seasons, a macrobiotic restaurant in Boston. Barley malt syrup and brown rice syrup are available at natural foods stores.

1 pound California tomato paste

3/4 cup barley malt syrup or rice syrup

1/2 to 3/4 cup tarragon vinegar

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce

1 tablespoon prepared mustard

1 scant teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

1/2 teaspoon powdered garlic

1/2 teaspoon powdered onion

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 to 3/4 cup water

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk to mix. Add enough water to thin the mixture to the consistency of conventional ketchup.

Currant ketchup

Makes 3 cups.

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