Ketchup's Chinese origins a sticky subject for US foodies

Updated: 2013-03-22 11:24

By Michael Barris in New York (China Daily)

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 Ketchup's Chinese origins a sticky subject for US foodies

Heinz's EZ Squirt ketchup for children. The food company said the word "ketchup" originated from a Chinese sauce pronounced "catsup". Via Bloomberg

As a language expert, Alan Yu is used to all kinds of influences showing up in English words.

But even the University of Chicago linguistics professor is surprised at the Chinese origins of the word "ketchup".

"This is what academics, having dinner together, talk about as one of the more interesting bits of the English language," Yu says of the far-flung roots of many English words.

While German, French and Latin generally are said to have made the biggest impact on the English that Westerners speak, read and mangle, Chinese also appears as an influence in words such as kumquat, gung ho, and kow tow. But for millions of Americans used to dumping the beloved condiment on their French fries, scrambled eggs and hamburgers, none of those connections may be as startling as the Chinese link to ketchup.

In fact, HJ Heinz Co, the Pittsburgh-based maker of one of the world's best selling ketchup brands, confirmed in a statement to China Daily that ketchup "originated from a Chinese sauce pronounced catsup".

In a nutshell, here's the deal on ketchup, at least according to Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford University professor who has written a blog called "The Language of Food". Jurafsky's blog cites evidence that ketchup has roots in eastern China's Fujian province as a fish sauce. "This fish sauce in the Southern Min dialect in the 18th century was called something like 'ke-tchup', 'ge-tchup', or 'kue-chiap', depending on the dialect," Jurafsky writes.

"Those of you who speak Southern Min or Cantonese dialects will recognize the last syllable of the [American pronunciation of the word], chiap or tchup, as the word for 'sauce', - pronounced zhi in Mandarin," Jurafsky writes.

A 1982 Mandarin-to-Southern-Min dictionary, he says, confirms that the first syllable of the written Chinese name for ketchup is an archaic word pronounced gu in spoken Southern Min, and meaning a preserved fish. So ketchup is an "archaic word for fish sauce" in the Hokkien dialect of Southern Min Chinese, Jurafsky concludes.

Furthermore, Jurafsky says, early English recipes show that the original ketchup was indeed fish sauce, the stinky cooking sauce called nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, all made from salting and fermenting anchovies.

Jurafsky's blog also sheds light on a long-time mystery - why ketchup sometimes is spelled "catsup". Since Hokkien isn't written with the Roman alphabet, the same archaic, Western process that transcribed fish sauce as ke-tchup, also delivered the world catsup, and even katchup.

In the statement provided to China Daily by Heinz, the company says its founder, Henry Heinz, "chose ketchup as the spelling" for his product to "differentiate" it from rivals' "catsup".

Linguist Yu agrees that the theories surrounding ketchup's origin are noteworthy. "It was a surprise to me," he says. "First, the tomato is not originally from Asia, so that is strange. What is even more strange is that it is somehow related to fish sauce."

In its original incarnation, ketchup was made with something other than tomatoes, Jurafsky notes. Tomatoes - a food not traditionally associated with Asian cuisine - were added to the recipe around 1800. From 1750 to 1850 its chief ingredient was fermented walnuts or sometimes fermented mushrooms, he writes. But as the blog points out, Samuel Johnson's seminal 1755 dictionary stated that English mushroom ketchups were "just an attempt to imitate the taste of an earlier original sauce that came from Asia."

Despite their abiding love for ketchup, Americans don't have a monopoly on how the popular sauce is used. Jurafsky's blog notes that people in China like to use it on fried chicken, and in Sweden it's a frequent pasta garnish. In Thailand, teens dip potato chips in ketchup, while in Eastern Europe it is a favorite pizza topping.

Taking her cue from Jurafsky's blog, Anzia Mayer, a writer for the China-focused blog Tea Leaf Nation, has dipped into scholarly literature to highlight other common English words with Chinese links. "I was shocked to find some common words that sounded really English to me," recalls Mayer, who is a senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Besides ketchup, her list includes kumquat, typhoon and gung ho.

At 22, Mayer has already made four trips to China and is "more or less" fluent in Mandarin. She hopes to become a Chinese teacher or journalist after graduation. Of her writing about the surprising influence of Chinese on common English words and expressions, she says: "I'm excited by the feeling of being able to make something foreign familiar."

(China Daily 03/22/2013 page11)