Do you need an open mind to ketchup?

By Doug Blackburn

New York Times News Service

Andrew Smith is obsessed with ketchup.

He claims he can't help himself. It's the price you pay for devoting years of research to America's pre-eminent condiment.

Smith, a culinary historian at the New School in Manhattan and the author of "Pure Ketchup," believes most of us are wearing blinders when it comes to ketchup.


We need to open ourselves to all the wacky, wonderful ways in which ketchup can be used to enhance a dish, Smith insists.

"I put it on vanilla ice cream," he says. "Don't laugh until you've tried it. I do all sorts of bizarre things with ketchup.

"We use it a lot in cooking in our house. Most people don't think about it that way. They regard ketchup as a condiment and never consider it as a sauce, but it adds a nice brown color to meats and vegetables."

The world of ketchup extends far beyond the Big Three -- Heinz, Hunt's and Del Monte -- although they thoroughly dominate the $450 million commercial ketchup industry.

Smith has identified more than 100 brands of ketchup in stores across the country, and these do not take into account the scores of original ketchups being created in restaurant kitchens.

There are four categories, among them a non-red tomato ketchup class that includes the use of black tomatoes and unripe green tomatoes. Smith is particularly keen on tasting different yellow ketchups, because he believes they are sweeter than the reds.

Another category is for an innovative ketchup using any combination of ingredients, such as historic non-tomato ketchups. It is here Smith will truly be in his element, because ketchup did not begin as a tomato-based sauce.

"Mushrooms, anchovies and walnuts were the first ketchups," Smith explains. He has discovered historical recipes for ketchups made with lobster, oysters, blackberries and liver.


While today ketchup is as American as apple pie -- 97 percent of the homes in the United States contain at least one bottle of ketchup, Smith says -- its origins lie on the other side of the Pacific.

British explorers brought the sauce back with them from Asia, either China or Indonesia. The name derives from the Chinese "ke-tsiap," or fermented fish sauce. Ketchup, according to Smith, is any sauce made from a single ingredient that is spiced.

It was only during the last two centuries, thanks to the proliferation of tomatoes and the development of preservation techniques, that ketchup evolved into a tomato-based product. The perception of ketchup grew more narrow through the years.

"Ketchup is a thread to our past, a glimpse into our present and a link to our future," Smith says. "Ketchup is one of the greatest success stories the sauce world has ever known."

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