Wednesday, September 2, 2009



Fujianese immigrants rescued from
the grounded freighter Golden Venture.
AP Photo: used by permission
Immigration has been a hot topic on this continent for well over 300 years, although the details of our journeys vary. A century ago when my grandparents made their way to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, they came by ship; modern immigrants instead arrive by land or air.

In the 21st century, however, a new wave of immigrants to the Lower East Side has been coming by ship again, from the Chinese province of Fujian. The human smuggling ship the Golden Venture, which ran aground in Queens in 1993 carrying 286 Fujianese after 120 days at sea, is in the news again because of The Snakehead, Patrick Radden Keefe's new book on Fujianese human smuggling. Jennifer 8 Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles documents how Fujianese immigrants have opened Fujianese restaurants in the Lower East Side and Chinatown, and how they spread out by Greyhound to work Chinese restaurants in small towns throughout the United States. The story of Fujianese immigrant Ming Kuang Chen, trapped for three days in a Bronx high-rise elevator while delivering Chinese food, is being workshopped this month in New York as an opera called Stuck Elevator.
But I want to talk about another immigrant from Fujian that has received a lot less attention from the press: ketchup.

I know what you're thinking; ketchup is a sauce made from tomatoes, so how can it come from China, whose cuisine makes pretty sparse use of tomatoes?

A clue to the answer comes from a question from a precocious 7-year-old named Katie. Take a look at the following ketchup pictures:


Here's Katie's question: why is ketchup called "tomato ketchup" (or "tomato catsup"; I'll deal with the spelling issue later). Doesn't the mention of "tomatoes" seem redundant? After all, if I walk down the hill to El Amigo, my local corner bar, and order a margarita, I don't order a "tequila margarita". A margarita is made of tequila. Otherwise it would be a daiquiri. Or a gimlet, or, God forbid, a mojito.

The answer is, of course, that the name "tomato ketchup" didn't used to be redundant. Ketchup used to be made with something other than tomatoes. The recipe for ketchup has changed quite dramatically over time; tomatoes were only added to the recipe around 1800, and sugar even later, well after the Civil War.

Where modern ketchup is a very thick sweet and sour chutney of tomatoes, ketchup from about 1750-1850 mainly meant a thin dark sauce made of fermented walnuts or sometimes fermented mushrooms. Mushroom ketchup is still produced by old-fashioned grocers; here's a bottle:

In the 18th century, of course, ketchup was made at home, and we still have many of the home recipes, such as a walnut ketchup recipe used by Jane Austen's family. Here's the recipe, from the household book kept by Jane's best friend Martha Lloyd while she lived with Jane and Cassandra and their mother in the brick cottage in Chawton:

Walnut Ketchup
Take green walnuts and pound them to a paste. Then put to every hundred two quarts of vinegar with a handful of salt. Put it altogether in an earthen pan keeping it stirring for eight days. Then squeeze through a coarse cloth and put it into a well lined saucepan, when it begins to boil skim it as long as any scum, rinse, and add to it some cloves, mace, sliced ginger, sliced nutmeg, Jamaica peppercorns, little horse radish with a few shallots. Let this have one boil up, then pour it into an earthen pan, and after it is cold bottle it up dividing the ingredients equal into each bottle. 

But walnut or mushroom aren't the original ingredients of ketchup either. As Samuel Johnson tells us in his great Dictionary in 1755, English mushroom ketchups were just an attempt to imitate the taste of an earlier original sauce that came from Asia.

What was this Asian sauce? It's clear from the earliest English recipes that the original ketchup was fish sauce, the stinky cooking sauce called nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, and made from salting and fermenting anchovies. An English recipe in 1736 calls for boiling down "2 quarts of strong stale beer and half a pound of anchovies", and then letting it ferment. And here's a full early recipe for ketchup from Eliza Smith's cookbook, the book mentioned in my essay on 'entrée'. Smith's cookbook, The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion, was a very popular English cookbook, first published in 1727, and in the 1742 edition the first cookbook to be published in the American colonies.

The modern story of how tomatoes became popular in the 19th century, how they were added to ketchup, how even later the recipe changed to replace fermentation by lots of vinegar and sugar to result in a kind of sweet and sour chutney has been nicely told in Andrew Smith's Pure Ketchup. Jeffery Steingarten's Vogue essay Playing Ketchup, collected in The Man Who Ate Everything, describes how he discovered and cooked some of the earliest recipes for tomato ketchup and showed in a careful scientific test that they were quite delicious.

But we'll leave Smith and Steingarten to tell the modern part of the story. We were talking about Fujian. How did fish sauce get a Fujianese name and how did it get to England so as to make its way here to acquire tomatoes and turn into the American national condiment?

Fermented food products have a long tradition in Asia. The first fermented condiments were thick pastes made of fermented meat or fish used as a flavoring for dishes like roast suckling pig. We know this because the Chinese have a longstanding habit of celebrating their food products in their poetry, and fermented sauces appear in the Elegies of the Chu State (楚辞), dating from before 300 BC. The following legend about the origins of fish paste come from the "Important Arts for the People's Welfare" (齐民要术 Qimin Yaoshu), written 544 CE.

When the Han emperor Wu-ti (-140 to -88) chased the I barbarians to the sea shore, he smelled a potent, delicious aroma, but could not see where it came from. He sent an emissary to investigate. A fisherman revealed that the source was a ditch in which was piled layer upon layer of fish entrails. The covering of earth could not prevent the aroma from escaping. The emperor tasted a sample of the product and was pleased with the flavour. This sauce then became known as Chu I to commemorate the fact that it was obtained while chasing the I barbarian. It is simply a fermented paste made from fish entrails. To make chu i: take the intestine, stomach, and bladder of the yellow fish, shark and mullet, and wash them well. Mix them with a moderate amount of salt and place them in a jar. Seal tightly and incubate in the sun. It will be ready in twenty days in summer, fifty days in spring or fall and a hundred days in winter.
          from H. T. Huang. Fermentations and Food Science, the superb Volume 5 of Needham's Science and Civilization in China, page 382-3.

The methods used to ferment fish pastes were soon applied to ferment vegetable products like beans, and indeed fermented soy beans and soy bean pastes (from which soy sauce developed) were a major trade commodity throughout the Chinese empire by the late Han Dynasty (i.e. by 50 BCE or 100 BCE). As Chinese culinary historians Naomichi Ishige and H. T. Huang show, over the next millenium the popularity of fermented fish and meat products drastically declined in China while fermented soy bean products became more and more popular, presumably because soy products were cheaper to make, easier to transport, and allowed for a wider variety of possible tastes. Certainly by the Qing Dynasty (the 17th century) soy sauce and bean pastes were the standard seasonings in China, leaving fish pastes as a marginal product only used in some regions.

In southeast Asia, on the other hand, especially along the Mekong river, the development of fermented fish products was much more central to the cuisine and fermented bean products never took off. Fish sauces like nuoc mam were probably developed indigenously here and remain today the most popular condiments. Food scholar Naomichi Ishige shows that east Asia is roughly divided into two large condiment regions, separated by a bean/fish isogloss, with southeast Asia mainly using fermented fish and northeast Asia mainly using fermented beans:

Thus in general, fish sauce either never really developed in China, or more likely died out, and is no longer mentioned in food histories and dictionaries by the Ming dynasty. Nonetheless, in modern times fish sauce is manufactured and eaten in China. The regions where it is eaten can be seen in the next figure from Naomichi Ishige, showing regions of east Asia where fish sauce is endemic:

As Ishige's figure shows, fish sauce is eaten inside China along the southeast coast, in Guangdong (Canton) and Fujian provinces, and seems to have been there for hundreds of years. Indeed, anthropologist E. N. Anderson notes that in Fuzhou, fish sauce is more common than soy sauce. On the right is a bottle of modern Chinese fish sauce from Chaozhou, the Southern Min speaking region in Guangdong (Canton) province:

Since indigenous Chinese use of fish sauce had died out by this time, Huang and Ishige argue that during the 17th and 18th centuries fish sauce entered China by migration, carried by Chinese sea traders from Vietnam or Cambodia up the southeastern coast of China, into Canton and Fujian provinces and the cities of Guanggong (Canton), Chaozhou (Teochew), Xiamen (Amoy) and Fuzhou.

What was this fish sauce called? In modern Chinese, in Mandarin, it's often called yu lu 鱼露 ('fish dew'), as in the bottle of Chaozhou fishsauce above. But yu lu is a modern name, and these Chinese sailors, traders, and settlers weren't speaking modern Mandarin. Many of them were speakers of Southern Min, a Chinese language (or dialect, depending on your definition) of 46 million speakers, spoken in both Fujian and Guangdong provinces as well as in Taiwan and throughout Southeast Asia (and whose variants and subdialects are called Hokkien, Taiwanese, Teochiu, and Amoy dialect, among other names).

So what was this fish sauce called in the Southern Min dialect in the 18th century? It turns out it was called something like "ke-tchup", "ge-tchup", or "kue-chiap", depending on the dialect. Here's the entry for kôe-chiap 鲑汁 from a Southern Min to English dictionary compiled by missionaries in 1873, that gives pronunciations in various Southern Min subdialects.

The word is pronounced kôe-chiap in Quanzhou (listed above as Cn.) and kê-chiap in Zhangzhou (listed above as C.), two large Hokkien-speaking cities near Xiamen (Amoy) in Fujian province. Those of you who speak Southern Min or Cantonese dialects will recognize the last syllable of the word, chiap or tchup, as the word for 'sauce', written 汁 and pronounced zhi in Mandarin.

A modern (1982) dictionary, Mandarin to Southern-Min, confirms our evidence from the missionary dictionary, telling us that the first syllable 鲑 is an archaic word, pronounced "gué" in spoken Southern Min, and meaning a preserved fish. Over the years this character has changed its meaning and in modern times often means 'salmon' .

So ketchup, written 鲑汁, is an archaic word for "fish sauce" in the Zhangzhou region of the Hokkien dialect of Southern Min Chinese.

It was James Murray, the famous editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who first figured out this etymology when he wrote the OED entry for this word in the Scriptorium in his back garden in 1889 (thanks to OED editor Penny Silva for this fact!). Some dictionaries, alas, give an obviously incorrect etymology, claiming that ketchup derives from a hypothetical Cantonese word ke jiap, 'eggplant sauce'. Since tomatoes in Cantonese are called "foreign eggplants", the intuition is that ke jiap was somehow short for "faan ke jiap" tomato sauce. I used to hear this folk etymology from friends all the time in Hong Kong but it can't be correct since, as we've seen, the original condiment was borrowed, together with its name, hundreds of years before the tomatoes were added.

In addition to bringing fish sauce from Vietnam to southeastern China, the Hokkien traders also brought it to Indonesia. Indeed, the modern word in Indonesia for sauce is: kecap. The word is used for soy sauce, sweetened soy sauce, fish sauce, and so on. On the right is a modern bottle of Indonesian kecap manis, sweet soy sauce.

Anita van Velzen's ethnographic research shows that until the 1950's, all these kinds of kecap were made only by ethnic Chinese families. So kecap in Indonesian presumably started out meaning "fish sauce" and slowly generalized its meaning to "sauce in general".

How did the British acquire the word and the sauce? One possibility is that the British acquired kecap from the Indonesians or from the Chinese in Indonesia. Evidence for this Indonesian origin possibility is that the British had a trading post in Sumatra in the 1690s, and that there exists an early English recipe (from 1732), for "Ketchup, in Paste. From Bencoulin in the East Indies" i.e. from Bengkulu, on Sumatra in Indonesia.

Another possibility is that they acquired the word from the Hokkien Chinese traders and settlers that they encountered throughout southeast Asia, since in the earliest discussion of ketchup being acquired in Asia, (British merchant Charles Lockyer's 1711 An account of the trade in India), Lockyer tells us that the best ketchup can be gotten from Tonkin (northern Vietnam) or China:

Whether the British originally got the word from Indonesians or from Chinese, the role of the Hokkien traders is clearly significant. Lockyer reports seeing a huge number of Chinese trading ships in the 1700s in all the ports in southeast Asia, in what is now Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Fujian and Canton have been the source of China's seafarers for a thousand years. It was Fujianese shipwrights who built the great treasure fleet of Chinese Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century, which is thought to be depicted in the early 17th century Chinese woodblock print shown above. It was from the Hokkien-speaking city of Quanzhou in southern Fujian that Marco Polo traveled from China to Persia. Since the Chinese communities throughout southeast Asia are descended from settlers that arrived from these seafaring regions, and hence speak either Southern Min or Cantonese, the British may have acquired the word and a taste for fish sauce from them.

In summary, between about 1300 and 1800 vast numbers of Southern Min speakers (Hokkien and Teochiu) sailed between China and Southeast Asia, trading and settling in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and the Philippines, exactly the regions that today use fish sauce. The Chinese traders presumably picked up fish sauce from mainland south-east Asia along the Mekong river where it was developed by the Vietnamese and Khmer, and spread it to China, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The British encountered these Chinese in Indonesia or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, borrowed the word ketchup, brought it home, and started right in on messing with the recipe.

But the history of ketchup has some deeper implications. Much popular history (especially in the west) talks about China turning inward in 1450 during the Ming dynasty and stopping sailing. A standard economic argument is that this ban on shipping and this inward-turning of Chinese culture led to the stagnation of China and the economic rise of the West, and only pressure from the West finally dragged Asia into the world economy in the 19th century.

Some parts of this story are true: China's inward turn did reflect repeated government bans on shipping in the Ming dynasty. But the vast amount of Chinese trade around Southeast Asia as late as the 18th century suggests that this account may be simplified.

This thesis was taken up by the late economist and sociologist Andre Gunder Frank in his book ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Frank shows that although the Chinese government banned sea trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, Hokkien and Cantonese traders continued to sail and trade illegally with Asia on a massive scale. In 1700 alone, 20,000 tons of goods were carried to South China by Chinese ships, while only 500 tons of goods were carried away by European ships.

Frank shows that in 1750, Asians, while less than 66% of the world population, produced 80% of the world GNP, and that as late as 1800 the per capita GNP was higher in China than in Europe. In other words, the Chinese dominated the entire intra-Asia trade, in spices, raw materials, and manufactured goods, and because of this trade and Asia's superior manufacturing technology (manufacturing til the 19th century basically meant textiles and ceramics, both of which were dominated by China and India), China dominated the world economy.

Frank's facts explain why the British, Portuguese and Dutch were so eager to get to Asia: most of the world's trade took place only here. But Europe had no manufacturing base that was comparable to Asia's until 1800, and so had nothing to trade except money. What Europe did have is colonies in America that were producing gold and silver from mines, usually run by slaves. So Europe used the gold and silver from these American colonial mines to buy into the Asian economy for industrial goods like textiles and housewares, and food items like spices, tea, rice, soy, and, yes, ketchup.

In other words, if Frank is right, the story of ketchup is a story of globalization and centuries of economic domination by a world superpower. But the superpower isn't America, and the century isn't ours. Ketchup's origins in the fermented sauces of China and Southeast Asia mean that those little plastic packets under the seat of your car are a direct result of Chinese and Asian domination of a single global world economy for most of the last millenium.

Of course the modern global economy isn't your grandmother's or even your mother's global economy. But it's nice to know ketchup still plays a role. Right next to all those new Fujianese restaurants in the Lower East Side, and just beneath the tenement apartment where my mother was born, there's now a McDonalds. French fry, anyone?