Ketchup vs. Catsup

We’ve all done it at some point in our lives. Maybe you were at a restaurant that had an unfamiliar brand. Maybe you were looking in the fridge at a friend’s house. Most likely, you were standing in the condiment aisle at the grocery store. And you asked yourself: what is the difference between ketchup and catsup?


The sauce we know today as ketchup originated in China around 1690. And the original Chinese recipe contained no tomatoes. In fact, it was more like a soy or Worcestershire sauce. The first ketchup recipe in the English language, published in an English cookbook called The Compleat Housewife in 1727, lists vinegar, white wine, shallots, anchovies, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper and lemon peel as primary ingredients.

Things quickly get complicated, however.

This sauce was supposedly known as ketsiap in China. According to some Internet sites, the sauce became popular and made its way to Malaysia, where the recipe was changed slightly and became known under the Malay name kecap. Some Internet sources say that it was the British who found the sauce in China and the Dutch who found it in Malaysia. So the Brits pronounced it “catchup” in imitation of the Chinese, and the Dutch pronounced it “ketch-up” in imitation of the Malaysians. There is evidence for this. In a 1690 book called Dictionary of the Canting Crew, English author Charles Lockyer spells it catchup, while Dutch sources from the same period call it ketjap, supporting the different origin theory. Incidentally, it was Jonathan Swift who almost single-handedly changed the English spelling from catchup to catsup. Why he preferred that spelling is not known.

On the other hand, some Internet sources say that the Dutch weren’t involved in the “ketchup vs. catsup” debate at all. These folks say that the sauce was known as both kôe-chiap and kê-chiap in China, and the resultant confusion comes from different British traders who discovered the sauce in different places under different names.

Still others say that ketchup comes from the French word escaveche, which itself comes from the Spanish escabeche, which comes from the Arabic iskebey. Frankly, I’m not at all convinced. Although the Arabic term does mean “pickling with vinegar” and the Spanish term means “sauce for pickling” (which is how the first ketchups were made), I think anthropologist E.N. Anderson and food historian Karen Hess are reaching. The two claim the word was Anglicized to caveach. But most other food historians think that caveach was a short-term English word which was replaced by the Spanish ceviche, as early recipes for caveach are suspiciously similar to ceviche.

One way or the other, the sauce arrived on British shores, and soon cooks were coming up with all sorts of variations on the original recipe. And, some time in the late 1700s, some cook somewhere decided to add tomatoes to the mix.

Some sources claim it was the Spanish who did this. I find such claims incredibly dubious, as most of those sources also say that tomato ketchup was the first culinary use of tomatoes by Europeans. The Spanish “discovered” tomatoes as early as 1493 and began cultivating them in Europe by 1540. It sure seems odd that a food plant would be cultivated in Spain for almost 250 years before anyone decided to actually eat it, and history is certain that the Spanish started eating tomatoes by the early 1600s, well before the sauce was invented in China.

It’s possible (though unlikely) that tomato ketchup is American in origin. It’s almost a certainty that tomatoes were used in ketchup in the UK before the US, but the first known printed recipe for tomato ketchup appeared in an American cookbook called The Sugar House Book in 1801. And it’s little changed from the sauce we known today, although modern ketchup is much sweeter than the original. In 1824, another tomato ketchup recipe appeared in The Virginia Housewife, an incredibly popular cookbook written by Mary Randolph, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson.

Ketchup was a popular way for farmers to get rid of excess tomatoes, and was often sold locally. By the 1830s many farms packaged ketchup, so bottled ketchup became all the rage. By 1837 a man named Jonas Yerks had developed a brand of ketchup that was popular all across the United States. And then, in 1876, a guy named Henry J. Heinz decided to get into the ketchup game, and it was all over for the competition. Heinz is, by far, the largest ketchup maker in the world today.

But you might wonder why it’s still sometimes called tomato ketchup. After all, the original soy sauce-style recipe has been almost entirely forgotten. Why the need to add the “tomato” qualifier? Well, it is kind of pointless in the United States, since tomato ketchup makes up 99.9999% of the ketchup market. But some of the ketchup variations are still popular in other places. Mushroom ketchup is still popular in the UK and a few former colonies. And banana ketchup – invented in the Philippines during World War II because tomatoes weren’t available – is popular in its home country and the Caribbean.

One more ketchup mystery: why is some ketchup sold as “fancy”? Opening up ketchup packets at a fast food place isn’t at all fancy, is it? Well, by the late 1800s, the American ketchup market was a mess. Unscrupulous manufacturers were using apples, pumpkin, and squash in place of tomatoes. Others were using the bits of tomato left over from some other type of food production. Even worse, many used coal tar-based dyes to keep their products a bright red color. And most manufacturers, even Heinz, used sodium benzoate as a preservative. Harvey Washington Wiley, a noted chemist and food safety crusader, led the nationwide call for the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. He eventually became the first commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And one of his first targets at the FDA was the ketchup industry. He adopted rigorous standards for ketchup, one of which involved the specific gravity of the sauce. “Standard” ketchup must have a specific gravity of 1.11 and contain a minimum of 25% tomato solids. “Extra Standard” must have a specific gravity of 1.13 and contain 29% tomato solids. “Fancy” ketchup must have a specific gravity of 1.15 and contain 33% tomato solids.

One rarely sees “catsup” for sale in the US these days. And that’s because in the early days of the Reagan Administration, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block proposed changing the classification of ketchup (and pickle relish) from “condiment” to “vegetable” as a way to cut costs of school lunches. Although the rule was never actually implemented, early drafts expressly used the spelling “ketchup”. An unknown bureaucrat contacted the Del Monte Foods company – the largest producer of “catsup” at the time – and pointed out that the company might not be able to sell “catsup” to schools as a vegetable, since the law specified “ketchup”. Del Monte, and several other brands, changed the name of their product to “ketchup”, and have kept the name since.

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