Could you imagine fries without ketchup?
Neither can the French even though in school cafeterias to mitigate obesity among teenagers. But even they couldn’t resist serving it with fries. This devil-wears-red, pureed sauce that’s taken over the world is known for being at once savoury and sweet with the just right measure of that tanginess that drives our taste buds absolutely insane. After all, what are taste buds but the gatekeepers of our gut?
While the word ‘ketchup’ has now become synonymous with tomato sauce, the first recipe involving tomatoes only appeared in 1812 and the citric acid naturally present in them helped preserve the ketchup longer than it was known to last. Previously, ketchup was made from all sorts of bizarre ingredients like mushrooms, walnuts and even fermented fish lending it the original Chinese etymology of kê-tsiap that began to be spelled as 'catsup' by the European traders who took it to North America.
The fermented flavour of umami in East Asian cuisine is known to signal to our body that the food we are eating is full of good microbes that will aid our digestion. What a blind man’s buff we play with our gastronomy when we introduce our food to the chicanery of condiments. The irony of what the present form of ketchup does to the body and specifically, the digestive system, has the makings of a recipe for trouble.
In the 70s, when a surprising number of countries underwent a tomato shortage and McDonald’s in the U.S. momentarily dropped Heinz as their ketchup supplier, Indian restaurants and hotels were using pumpkins instead of tomatoes to cut down costs. A precedent that’s being emulated in the present day as well, given that the price of tomatoes last week in New Delhi , a scorching rise from around 30 rupees this April. In fact, ketchup hasn’t always been made from tomatoes, a fact you’ll not sniff at if you were to squeeze out the history of this condiment into an observational petri dish. From mashed bananas in the Philippines to raspberry sauce, red peppers, carrots, beets and even apples are used worldwide in producing sauces somewhat reminiscent of tomato ketchup.
So while fries without ketchup could be unthinkable, ketchup without tomatoes is completely achievable and certainly more economical.
The word umami was coined by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, who also synthesised glutamate — an amino acid found copiously in nature from breast milk to tomatoes — in its stable salt form and called it 'MSG' or monosodium glutamate. The Indian website of Unilever Food Solutions quotes from an Australian statutory body called NSW Food Authority when ‘the body does not distinguish between free glutamate from tomatoes, cheese or mushrooms and the glutamate from MSG added to foods.’ The FSSAI, which is the Indian authority for food safety, has also cleared MSG for use since 2016, provided that there is no misleading information on the packaging of any products such as Maggi’s infamous that caused the temporary 2015 ban on its instant noodles in 18 states in our country. Unilever, of course, is the multinational company behind arguably India’s most popular ketchup brand Kissan.
While for a giant part of the world, Heinz is the face of ketchup, the American food processing company faced brutal competition when it launched its first product in India in the year 2000. There was already a territorial war going on between the homegrown subsidiary of Unilever and Swiss corporation Nestlé Maggi to stake their claim upon the oversaturated Indian palate. Close runners up vying for dominance of the sacred sauce were Capital Foods, Del Monte (formerly known as FieldFresh), and German company Dr. Oetker among other local competitors who were actively targeting their endorsements towards the mothers of school children from middle class families, often at the forefront of the buying decision.
Apart from other ketchup brands, the myriad chutneys inherent to the South Asian culinary ethos were already sufficiently filling in the need for dips with samosas and vadas, the flavours more attuned to our taste profiles. Identifying the need for a more piquant and authentically Indian concoction, Maggi pushed out the 'Hot and Sweet' sauce as an alternative to ketchup in 1986. With breathtaking success, this product inspired a comeback 'Tom-Chi' from Kissan in their attempt to serve a sauce infused with green chilis, for a spicy aftertaste.
Within barely five months of its launch, Tom-Chi's share in the market grew to 14 per cent against Maggi Hot & Sweet's 16 per cent, but the damage had already been done, 'Hot and Sweet' had found a place on the kitchen shelves alongside ketchup in many households in India purely because it was ahead of the game.
The response from Hindustan Unilever was served in technicolour and brimming with witty jingoism. Advertisements released in the 90s from Kissan were aimed at making boring, homemade food more appealing to children and young adults who famously detest bland vegetables like broccoli or breakfast preparations like rava upma. Driving at how their products were all-natural and made up of ‘100% real tomatoes’, ketchup brands like Kissan began raising the ante for replacing actual tomatoes in soups and gravies with their products. Maggi, on the other hand, hit back with the tagline of "It's different" that worked for the Indian audiences who appreciated the messaging of innovation and novelty.
Pitched as the 'ketchup wars' by the legacy media at the turn of the millennium, there were also no-garlic and no-tomato variants released by both major brands to captivate the vegetarian and Jain communities, as strides were made to diversify their appeal. Trade wars of this nature have an intriguing ability to unravel the cultural patterns of their time.
Like so many imports from the West, ketchup embodied the uniquely American virtues of being mass-produced, convenient and malleable to any type of cuisine. This was after all, the golden age of packaged food and condiment sachets, a veritable bacchanalia of pop tarts and ready-to-serve breakfast waffles.
The global history of ketchup even came full circle when it resurfaced in East Asian kitchens again as the inspiration for sweet-and-sour chicken and a substitute for tamarind in pad thai noodles. During its circumnavigation, this sauce had changed the face of food culture forever, and more countries aside from France had begun noticing the pitfalls of addiction to ketchup. It was really the high concentration of sugar that was ringing the alarm bells. But nevertheless, ketchup will remain a classical episode in the history of our culinary journey, as omnipresent as fizzy cola.
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