Like many Americans, I grew up on ketchup. I smeared it on eggs, puddled it next to potatoes and glazed frozen chicken patties with the stuff.
But as I crossed over to adulthood, I got a sense that requesting ketchup at restaurants suggested something about me beyond my preferred sauce. I understood that, unlike worldlier condiments such as Sriracha, ketchup isn’t sophisticated, and neither are those who love it. Coming from a working-class background, I didn’t want to broadcast my blue-collar roots every time I ordered fries. I mean, frites. I branched out into aioli, flirted with malt vinegar and generally learned to live without my ketchup.
Despite its down-market reputation, ketchup is ubiquitous. And it has been for a very long time, certainly since Heinz patented its first bottle in 1882.
The exact origin of ketchup is contested by scholars and food historians. Eighteenth-century condiments with names like kecap (Indonesia) and ke-tsiap (China) suggest that the earliest ketchups were concocted in Asia. From there, the sauce traveled to Europe before evolving into its current form in America.
The earliest uses of the word describe something that we wouldn’t recognize today as ketchup at all. Common early versions were made with fermented mushrooms or walnuts and their pickling liquid, along with a slew of spices. Oyster, liver and lobster were other main ingredients. Pungent, dark and thin, the first ketchups were decidedly not sweet. Early recipes were created with the goal of a long shelf life. Some recipes had titles like “Ketchup to Keep 20 Years.”
It was American food companies that standardized the iconic condiment that’s in almost every refrigerator across the land today. They, too, were driven by the goal of a long-lasting product. That’s how ketchup got so sweet and thick — sugar is a natural preservative.
By the 1890s, the New York Tribune declared tomato ketchup the national condiment of the United States. It was described by food writers of the time as an “incomparable condiment,” and “the sauce of sauces,” according to food historian Andrew F. Smith’s book “Pure Ketchup.”
But it wasn’t the sauce’s storied history that revived my long-dormant love. It was my 4-year-old niece. She doesn’t know that it isn’t cool. During one visit this year, we ate tater tots and ketchup together, her glee unbridled, the reapplications of ketchup to her plate and mine numerous.
When I got home, I bought both frozen tater tots and ketchup. So what if it’s lowbrow? It reminds me of my niece. Savoring the flavors and memories of shared meals matters more to me than proving my refined palate. It wasn’t long before I emptied the bottle, finding new ways to use it up.
A longtime favorite restaurant dish of mine, the deep fried sweet and spicy Cauliflower 65, often includes ketchup. I ate this dish dozens of times without realizing the tomato-based condiment played a central role in its seasoning. Usually described as Indian-Chinese fusion, it’s the kind of Americanized melting-pot dish whose origins and “authentic” recipe are unclear, so I used a recipe from the “V Street” cookbook by Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby as my starting point.
Ketchup is often the key ingredient in another classic sauce that is currently out of style: mayonnaise-based Russian dressing. Spicier than its sibling, Thousand Island, thanks to the addition of sinus-tingling horseradish, Russian dressing can be made well without any mayonnaise at all (my version subs tofu for the mayo), but you can’t get precisely the right tang for a Reuben sandwich without a healthy dose of the red stuff.
A recent dinner I attended featured a group of chefs, each cooking a dish to represent their heritage. Chef Andrew Wood, known for his obsessive local sourcing at Russet in Philadelphia, brushed his buttery, ketchup-forward sauce on the chicken he was grilling that night. His dish paid tribute to the summer barbecues his family shared when he was growing up. Most good recipes for American barbecue sauce are little more than gussied-up ketchup, and Wood’s vintage sauce recipe comes straight off the Heinz labels of the late 1970s. When I asked him about the Heinz, he said, “You can’t make this without it.”
Barbecue sauce is no prestige recipe. But I dare you not to like it mixed with shredded chicken and piled on a potato roll with pickles, or brushed on chicken during its last moments roasting or on the grill. It would also be welcome alongside ribs, pulled pork or added to your turkey burger.
While ketchup is an indispensable ingredient for a number of classic dishes, it shouldn’t need to hide in a recipe to be celebrated. If ketchup were introduced today, we would hail it as the next “it” condiment. It’s time to cook with it, as well as slather it on potatoes, eggs, onion rings, meatloaf or wherever you like it best — and do it proudly.
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: If you like things less spicy, feel free to use less Sriracha. You’ll need an instant-read thermometer for monitoring the oil. These are best just after they are made, but stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator they keep well for three days. Reheat for a few minutes at 375 degrees, until hot and crisp. Chickpea flour, also called garbanzo flour, is available from Bob’s Red Mill (online or in many supermarkets). Or substitute whole-wheat flour. Adapted from “V Street” cookbook, by Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby.
• 1/2 c. tomato ketchup
• 1/4 c. Sriracha, or as needed (see Note)
• 1/4 c. mayonnaise
• 1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
• 1 tsp. curry powder
• 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
• 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
• 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
• 1/2 c. cornstarch
• 1/2 c. chickpea flour or whole-wheat flour (see Note)
• 1 small head cauliflower (about 1 lb.), broken down into florets (about 5 c.)
• Vegetable oil, for frying
• Fresh cilantro leaves, whole or chopped, for garnish
Place a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.
Whisk together the ketchup, Sriracha, mayonnaise, white wine vinegar, curry powder, turmeric, cumin and garlic powder in a mixing bowl. Whisk together the cornstarch and chickpea flour in a pie plate.
Add the cauliflower to the ketchup mixture and toss to coat. Use tongs or your clean hands to remove the florets one at a time from the ketchup mixture, shaking off excess, and place into the cornstarch mixture. Dredge each floret to coat well, and then place on the wire rack.
Pour enough oil to get 1/2-inch depth in a large cast-iron skillet, over medium heat. Once the oil temperature registers 350 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, drop in a single floret; the oil should sizzle around it. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, fry the florets for 5 minutes, tossing and turning for uniform browning after the first minute.
Use tongs to transfer them to the wire rack; season lightly with salt right away. Cool for 5 minutes, then sprinkle with cilantro, and serve.
Nutrition information per each of 8 servings:
Calories 180 Fat 13 g Sodium 280 mg
Carbohydrates 14 g Saturated fat 2 g Total sugars 5 g
Protein 2 g Cholesterol 2 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Classic American Barbecue Sauce
Makes 3/4 cup.
Note: For a perfectly smooth sauce, strain the onion and garlic bits out after cooking. From Joy Manning.
• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 1/4 c. grated onion
• 1/8 tsp. ground allspice
• Pinch ground cayenne pepper, or more as needed
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 1/2 c. tomato ketchup
• 2 tbsp. yellow mustard
• 2 tbsp. light brown sugar
• 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
• 1 tbsp. molasses
• 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
• 3/4 tsp. liquid smoke
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, allspice and cayenne pepper; cook for about 2 minutes, stirring, until the onion has softened. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute, until fragrant.
Add the ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, cider vinegar, molasses, Worcestershire and liquid smoke. Once the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and cook for about 10 minutes until slightly reduced and thickened. Let cool before serving or storing.
Nutrition information per 2 tablespoons:
Calories 80 Fat 4 g Sodium 340 mg
Carbohydrates 13 g Saturated fat 3 g Total sugars 12 g
Protein 0 g Cholesterol 10 mg Dietary fiber 0 g