A savory history rooted in fish sauce, revisited through an old cookbook
Our modern tomato ketchup is only the most recent iteration of the centuries-old sauce. Originally made in England as an attempt to replicate the flavors of imported Chinese fish sauces, ketchup's variations pull from the abundance of savory flavors across the natural world, from fish to walnuts to mushrooms and later, tomatoes.
I love to talk about ketchup history. It's a fascinating example of how our tastes and terminology shift over time, and how cross-cultural exchange of foods can result in an adaptation of a dish that may be drastically different from its origins.
I love to talk about ketchup as an example of this, particularly because modern ketchup recipes came about well before any of us were born: It's easy to take for granted that a certain dish has always been made in the way we know it, particularly if changes to it happened prior to current living memory. Ketchup, now sweet and savory, was once fully savory and was thin like fish sauce: The reason tomatoes were used was because they were savory, not for their texture, though a byproduct of using them was the thick, pasty texture we know today.
I also love studying ketchup because I happen upon new recipes and insights in unexpected places. In December, I picked up a cookbook in Ireland called The Cook's Oracle and, to my surprise and delight, it contained ketchup recipes, but ones just different enough from those I'd made before to really pique my curiosity.
The book, published in 1840, is the kind of old cookbook I love: It focuses on budget meals and every day food, with some special occasion dishes thrown in here and there. While I appreciate towering, architectural pastry and grand banquets as much as the next person, I tend to shy away from buying too many historic cookbooks that focus on this particular flavor of cooking. I don't just buy old cookbooks to look at: I buy them to learn and cook from.
And that's exactly what I've done with The Cook's Oracle.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Root: Historic Food for the Modern World to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.