The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


The History of Ketchup

Editor’s note: Ever since we broadcast our show on America’s island history, which included an interview with Mr. Davison on the origins of Thousand Island dressing, we’ve had listener requests about what exactly went into 19th century ketchup, which was far more varied than our modern day Heinz and Hunts. Here is his reply, which also encompasses the history of ketchup, a recipe for modern mushroom ketchup, and a recipe for his own Thousand Island dressing:

Ketchup came to the western world via Asia through British and Dutch sailors returning from today’s Indonesia, Malaysia, and China during the seventeenth century. There, they had discovered a sweet, sour, and fishy concoction called ketjap or keisap that bears a closer resemblance to a combination of Worcestershire sauce combined with thick soy sauce than anything that comes out of the Heinz bottle. Made from fermented soy beans, sugar, fish brine, and spices, katjap is still an essential part of any Indonesian or Malaysia meal, prized for

The condiment in question. Credit: Flickr user Steven Depolo

The condiment in question. Credit: Flickr user Steven Depolo

its abilities to enhance meat and fish dishes. When they returned home, sailors wanted to recreate the delicious sauce, which was not only a close parallel to some very traditional British condiments (especially the famous Worcestershire sauce that descends from Roman garum) but improved on them by adding a sweet element. Ironically, ketjap and Worcestershire are likely distant cousins. Many scholars argue that ketjaps and other sweet-sour-fishy sauces first entered the Asian diet via the long-distance trading routes linking ancient Rome to India and China because garum, the astringent sauce made from salted fish brine, vinegar, pepper, and herbs was frequently exchanged by Roman and Greek merchants in return for silks and precious spices.

In any case, sailors back in Europe were unable to faithfully recreate ketjap since soybeans were all but unknown in the west– at the time only a few well-to-do botanists cultivated the legume. Instead, sailors used ingredients that could easily recreate the savory, unami­-rich flavors evoked by soy like mushrooms, walnuts, or cockles. Cooks found they could salt these foods and soak them in water, wine, or vinegar to draw out a liquid similar to the brine created when making soy sauce. Trade goods brought from Asia also figured highly. Spices like pepper, mace, and cloves were frequently added to both evoke the flavors of the East but also cut the sourness of fermented shellfish or mushrooms. As sugar grown in the Americas became plentiful, that too found its way into ketchup mixes. Eventually, this concoction would be cooked down slowly over a low fire to make a thick, sauce-like condiment. By the 1720s, these “kitchups” had found a permanent place on British tables, where diners appreciated the way they enhanced roasted meats and game.

A 19th century recipe for mushroom ketchup/

A 19th century recipe for mushroom ketchup.

Ketchup traveled across the Atlantic with British settlers, who quickly made new world versions with American ingredients like mussels and oysters. Some surviving recipes even describe turtle ketchup. But the most popular version remained the mushroom-based variety, which survived the American Revolution, the Civil War, and all of the nineteenth century’s major social and cultural transformations to remain a mainstay on American tables. Tomato ketchup, which would eventually supplant the mushroom kind in Americans’ hearts and minds, was still a single variety of a larger class of sauces. The recipe below, from the 1884 edition of Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery, a cookbook popular both sides of the Atlantic, calls the sauce “more highly esteemed and more generally useful than any other.”

Mushroom ketchup would lose its special place when the Heinz company began marketing a very sweet tomato ketchup at the end of the nineteenth century. As Americans became more accustomed to purchasing their food from supermarkets that, they shifted towards the tomato variety, which could be produced on an industrial-scale suited to mass-food retailing far-easier than the mushroom variety. Not only was mushroom ketchup almost always made at home, but it was not until much later in the twentieth century that producers mastered the science necessary to grow mushrooms in the amounts necessary for year-round mass-consumption (long after scientists had created tomatoes perfectly adapted to factory farming). By then, the public had all but forgotten about the many different varieties of ketchup that had once graced American tables.

What would a mushroom ketchup taste like today, using ingredients found in any supermarket and aided by contemporary cooking methods? I decided to avoid the more difficult and time-consuming aspects of the recipe, to create a version closer in texture and flavor to our own tomato-based ketchups but faithful to the nineteenth century version. Salty, a bit sour, and entirely delicious, this sauce works perfectly with grilled steaks or hamburgers, more full-flavored fish like salmon or mackerel, or even beside an omelet filled with a flavorful cheese like a raclette or taleggio.

Modern Mushroom Ketchup

1 pound fresh, wild mushrooms, cleaned but not washed
1 shallot, sliced finely
2 cups low-sodium soy sauce
2 cups turbinado sugar
½ cup apple cider vinegar
1 jalapeno chili, chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 ounces fresh ginger, smashed
1 tablespoon Anchovy paste
1 tablespoon ground mace
1 teaspoon, ground coriander
1 star anise pod
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 cup water
Ground black pepper
Kosher or Sea Salt

Special equipment:
A food processor

1 quart.



  • Slice the mushrooms finely and salt them heavily. Let them macerate at room temperature in a large bowl for about 6 hours. Do not discard the juice that collects at the bottom.
  • In a sauté pan, cook the sliced shallots in butter or oil until they are translucent but not browned.
  • Combine the mushrooms, mushroom juice, shallots, garlic, jalapeno, ginger, anchovy, mace, black pepper, coriander, soy, vinegar, sugar, and water in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until a fine soupy paste forms. Ignore the unappetizing look.
  • Combine the soupy paste with the star anise, cinnamon, and bay leaves in a sauce pan and beginning simmering at a low temperature. As the ketchup cooks down, it will lose some of the texture but also darken in color as the sugar caramelizes. Be sure to stir regularly to avoid burning. After about 40 minutes, it will begin to tighten and take on more of a ketchup-y appearance. Taste and salt if necessary (it should be on the salty side) or a little vinegar if too sweet. Once desired thickness is achieved, remove from the stovetop, take out the cinnamon, star anise, and bay leaves, and transfer to a contained that can be sealed tightly. I recommend several small mason jars of about 8 ounces each. The ketchup can be kept for up to two weeks in the refrigerator or several months in the freezer.

A Modern Thousand Island Dressing

Thousand Island Dressing was famously invented in upstate New York’s Thousand Islands region at the beginning of the twentieth century. Traditionally made with tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, hard-boiled egg, and pickle relish, the dressing has achieved a lasting place in American kitchens, delis, and restaurants. This modern version tones down the traditionally more astringent flavors in the traditional recipe to create a slightly sweeter version that pairs well with grilled fish, chicken, hearty lettuces, and, of course, a classic Reuben sandwich.

1 cup mayonnaise (preferably Duke’s)
1 cup tomato ketchup
The juice of one lemon (preferably a Meyer lemon)
One hardboiled egg (see note below)
1 ounce of chopped parsley
4 ounces sliced fresh cucumber
Worcestershire Sauce
Hot Sauce
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup sugar
Black Pepper
Kosher or sea salt

Yield: About one pint.



  • In a bowl, combine the sliced cucumbers with the apple cider vinegar, the sugar, a splash of water, and a good amount of salt. Allow this to sit for about 4 hours. In this South, these are called “bread and butter” pickles and make a fantastic snack. Making a large batch is always a good idea.
  • In another bowl, combine the mayonnaise and tomato ketchup with the lemon juice, some salt, and some pepper. Season with Worcestershire and hot sauce to taste.
  • Finely chop the hardboiled egg and add to the mixture.
  • Finely chop the now-pickled cucumbers and also add these to the mixture in addition to the parsley. Adjust seasoning as needed and transfer to a container that can be sealed tightly. Will keep for up to five days in the refrigerator.

Note: Hardboiled eggs can be purchased pre-made at the supermarket, but these are always inferior to homemade. To prepare, place a large egg in a small saucepan filled with cold water. Place on a very high heat. Once the water begins boiling, wait exactly eight minutes. At that mark, plunge the egg into ice-cold water. As soon as you can handle the egg, peel it (the temperature differential between the now-ice cold shell and the still warm inside makes it easier to peel). Once peeled, plunge the egg back into the cold water for perhaps 30 seconds to fully stop the cooking.

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