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.