The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Ketchup Used to Be Made of Fish: The Crazy History of The World's Greatest Condiment

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Here's something that might just blow your mind: ketchup—the national condiment of 1896, according to the New York Tribune—wasn't always tomato based. In fact, if it had remained in its early form, we might be spreading fish paste on our burgers (gulp) instead of the tangy tomato-y goodness we presently rely on.

Somewhere along the line ketchup went through a grand transformation, which made it synonymous with the tomato. And today Heinz alone sells 650 million bottles of the special sauce annually. As we approach burger season, we started to wonder, how did ketchup become ketchup?


It all started with anchovies (of course!). The first English reference to "katchop" was in the book, Compleat Housewife [sic], published in 1727, which contained directions for a sauce spun from "twelve to fourteen anchovies, ten to twelve shallots, white wine vinegar, white wine…mace, ginger, cloves, whole peppers, a whole nutmeg, lemon peel, and horseradish." Way back it was more like a fish sauce than our condiment today… and maybe really gross. But apparently people didn't think so, because cookbook authors were reprinting the above recipe well into the 19th century.

The sauce likely made its way to England by way of British explorers in Southeast Asia. Mushroom and walnut varieties along with red pepper-, grape-, and oyster-based ketchups got quite a bit of play on the English recipe book circuit. Ketchup was a hit. One of the reasons that it did so well its high concentration of salt and vinegar: The stuff could sit on the shelf for a long time, a bonus before the age of refrigerators. Since ketchup could apparently be made with whatever, tomatoes finally got their shot at the sauce in the first half of the 19th century.


In the 1820s commercial ketchup bottling (the tomato kind) began in the US. What was stocked on the shelves, though, still didn't look like what's stocked in diners today. Since yellow and green tomatoes were not easily canned, they were tossed in the mix with the red ones destined for ketchup. But the mixed bag led to a muddy brown concoction in the bottle. It was clear ketchup still needed to come into its own.

Heinz started selling ketchup commercially in 1876. Fifteen years later, recipes for the homemade version had largely disappeared from cookbooks. Heinz's in-house magazine, named Pickles, explained in 1901 the appeal of the ready-made:

"He little knows how fortunate he is to have been born a generation or so late, and to have escaped the miseries of scouring…kettles to brassy brightness, the primitive manner of fruit-picking, the boiling of jellies and the parboiling of his face and hands as he stirred, stirred and constantly stirred the catsup [sic] to keep it from burning."

With all the effort it took to make by hand, combined with the fact that ketchup was one of the first packaged foods, it's no wonder bottled ketchup was pretty popular from the get-go.

But in 1930, the food scientists at Heinz started wondering if they could get more from their tomatoes. What they wanted was more consistency, so they developed a tomato-breeding program to attempt to take more control of their product.


In some ways, little has changed since then. "The perfect tomato is something we're constantly on the hunt for," says Ross Siragusa, Heinz's director of global agriculture. But that hunt has changed a lot.

In 1965, for instance, the mechanical harvester hit the tomato picking industry, which changed the qualities of an ideal ketchup tomato. Because the mechanical harvester sweeps through a field without being selective about what fruit it picks, it's a little rougher on the tomatoes than when they're hand picked.


So a new tomato was sought out to compensate. Heinz needed a fruit with a thick skin and a lot of meat that could stand up to the harvester. The were also interested in varieties that stay ripe longer, which allows a sweep of the machine to pick more tomatoes at their peak.

In the 1970s, Heinz got a better handle on the fruit by using hybrid seed instead of relying on open pollination. Hybrid seeds are a better editing tool; they allow scientists to take the best characteristics of different varieties and combine them to make tomatoes that are good for ketchup and tailored to a certain climate.


The way it works today is that Heinz hands some six billion seeds annually over to farmers after the seeds have sprouted in a greenhouse. Those seeds have decades of trial and error baked in. For instance, it used to be that Heinz-produced seeds could spit out 22 tons of tomatoes per acre. Over time, Heinz has been able to push their seeds to produce more than double that, which benefits both the farmers that host the plants and the company that comes to collect them.

Within four hours of being mechanically plucked from the vine, the tomatoes are processed into tomato paste. Then they're sent to be processed further. Before the ketchup is bottled, the concentration of the paste is cut, and a spice pack is added.


The result is remarkably consistent, but the tomato's story is still changing. Right now 6000 different test seeds reside Stockton, California, all with shot at being the next break out ketchup varietal.

Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

Drawing Board is where we explore the amazing origins of everyday objects. Know an interesting story? Tip us off at with the subject line: "Idea for drawing board," and we'll investigate.


Image: Shutterstock/bonchan