Origins of Ketchup

Slate.com continues to cover food studies even as our semester has passed. I really enjoyed this piece on the origins of ketchup, which apparently comes from some Fujian dialect’s word for “fish sauce.” 500 years ago, ketchup was an early signal of global trade, spreading across Southeast Asia to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. But, like the latter day hamburger that would serve as a conveyance for today’s ketchup to far-flung markets, old school ketchup piggybacked on the rice wine that became the central product in a bunch of trading relationships. (I can attest that you can still quite easily drink Arak in Indonesia, a word that derives from the red rice wine mentioned in the article.) Western versions of ketchup added tomatoes but didn’t drop fish until the mid 19th century, and nearing the twentieth century’s beginning, commercial manufacturers upped the sugar content in order to better preserve the stuff for widespread retail sale.

As the article points out, tracing ketchup’s origins invites a new reading of global economic history:

The story of ketchup—from the fermented fish sauces of China and Southeast Asia to the sweet chutneys of England and America—is, after all, a story of globalization and of centuries of economic domination by a world superpower. But the superpower isn’t America, and the century isn’t ours. Think of those little plastic packets under the seat of your car as a reminder of China’s domination of the global world economy for most of the last millennium.

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