Is ketchup America’s favorite condiment? Maybe so, considering it’s found in 97 percent of U.S. homes and slathered on innumerable French fries each day. But there’s more to this sauce than hamburgers and hot dogs. In fact, ketchup has a storied past that dates back to imperial China—something to think about next time you coax the perfect dollop out of a reluctant bottle.
Believe it or not, the ancestor of modern ketchup was completely tomato-free. Though tomato plants were brought to England from South American in the 1500s, their fruits weren’t eaten for centuries since people considered them poisonous. Instead, the precursor to our ketchup was a fermented fish sauce from southern China. As far back as 300 B.C., texts began documenting the use of fermented pastes made from fish entrails, meat byproducts and soybeans. The fish sauce, called “ge-thcup” or “koe-cheup” by speakers of the Southern Min dialect, was easy to store on long ocean voyages. It spread along trade routes to Indonesia and the Philippines, where British traders developed a taste for the salty condiment by the early 1700s. They took samples home and promptly corrupted the original recipe.
The 19th century was a golden age for ketchup. Cookbooks featured recipes for ketchups made of oysters, mussels, mushrooms, walnuts, lemons, celery and even fruits like plums and peaches. Usually, components were either boiled down into a syrup-like consistency or left to sit with salt for extended periods of time. Both these processes led to a highly concentrated end product: a salty, spicy flavor bomb. One oyster ketchup recipe called for 100 oysters, three pints of white wine and lemon peels spiked with mace and cloves. The commemorative “Prince of Wales” ketchup, meanwhile, was made from elderberries and anchovies. Finally, in 1812, the first recipe for tomato ketchup made its debut. James Mease, a Philadelphia scientist, wrote that the choicest ketchup came from “love apples,” as they were then called.
Mushrooms, nuts, oysters, tomatoes—what exactly do all these foods share? The common denominator is umami, the savory fifth taste only recently acknowledged by Western scientists. That delicious meatiness you savor when eating a perfectly ripe tomato occurs naturally in mushrooms, nuts and fermented or aged products like fish, cheeses and meats. Umami also happens to be a pleasant, all-natural substitute—or, some might say, euphemism—for the much-maligned food additive MSG. Just as some Chinese restaurants add a white powder to food to intensify taste, our foremothers were creating natural flavor boosts in the form of ultra-condensed ketchups.
Experience ketchup history in your own kitchen with this mushroom-based recipe—a perfect addition to a Friday night steak dinner at home. Unless you have access to wild criminis, it’s not the cheapest concoction to whip up, but you can repurpose the mushrooms in a pasta or frittata after you’ve extracted their delicious liquid. Don’t take your eyes off the stove for long or your mushroom liquid might risk boiling away to nothing!
Start to finish: 3 1/2 hours
Servings: 4 (1/2 cup)
3 pounds crimini or button mushrooms, or a mix
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups water
3 (2-inch) sprigs of thyme
5 black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
3 garlic cloves
Snap the stems off the mushrooms and reserve for another use. Soak mushrooms in a large bowl of cold water, agitating away any dirt or grit. Drain mushrooms, slice them into 1/4-inch slices and set on 2 or more baking sheets in a single layer. Let dry for 2 hours. Sprinkle with salt, then let stand for 15 minutes to draw out moisture and create a more concentrated product.
Put mushrooms into a large stockpot or Dutch oven on medium heat and add the 2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer and, using a potato masher, mash the sliced mushrooms while cooking. You should end up with pea-sized mushroom chunks. Let simmer for 20 minutes, until mushrooms are limp, cooked and swimming in their own liquid. Strain the mixture in batches through cheesecloth, pressing on the mushrooms with the back of a spoon to extract all their liquid. Set mushrooms aside for another use. Pour the liquid into a small saucepan with the thyme, cloves, peppercorns and garlic, then simmer until the liquid coats the back of a spoon. Serve with steaks or on hamburgers.