Pass the Knowledge: The Origins of Your Favorite Condiments

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Next time someone asks you to pass the ketchup, mustard, mayo or Worcestershire sauce, you can wow them with your knowledge of the condiments.

Ketchup
The word "ketchup" comes from the Chinese "ke-tsiap," and if you're wondering why ketchup isn't used in Chinese food, well, there's your story. Ke-tsiap wasn't at all like ketchup. It was a sauce made from pickled fish that frankly wouldn't taste so great on a burger "“ or in our opinion on much else. Nonetheless, it was popular enough to catch on in Malaysia, where it was called "kechap," and Indonesia ("ketjap"), and to be honest it probably wasn't as bad as it sounds; it's been compared to soy sauce. When English and Dutch sailors made their way to the Far East in the 17th century, they "discovered" the sauce and brought some back with them. Homemade versions immediately became popular; Elizabeth Smith's The Compleat Housewife (copyright 1727) called for anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and lemon peel.

Note the lack of tomatoes in that recipe. In the grand East-meets-West tradition of fusion cuisine, someone thought to add tomatoes to ke-tsiap in the early 1700s. The British counterpart of that person, by the way, went another direction and added mushrooms instead; you can still find mushroom ketchup at a few specialty retailers, and The New Joy of Cooking contains a recipe for the homemade stuff. Anyway, in both nations, the spelling also mutated around the same time; the first reference to "ketchup" appeared in 1711. This, too, caught on, and within 100 years or so ke-tsiap had acquired yet another regional name: tomato soy. Teresa Heinz Kerry's great-great-great in-laws started selling a thin, salty version of the stuff in as "tomato ketchup" in 1876, and it was such a hit that eventually they just dropped the "tomato."

Mustard
Mustard, in our opinion, has one of the best linguistic back stories in the English tongue: its name is a contraction of the Latin mustum ardens, meaning "burning wine" "“ presumably because the seeds are spicy and used to be as valuable as the vintage stuff. (The French used to mix mustard seeds with grape juice, which may also have something to do with the name.) Mustard's tastier qualities, however, weren't always appreciated the way they are today. It started out as the ancient equivalent of Neosporin: Pythagoras prescribed it for scorpion stings. His successor, Hippocrates, tried to cure toothaches with it (at least he didn't use something sugary). Later, the stuff had fans among religious types, too: Pope John XXII was reportedly so enamored of mustard that he established a new Vatican position, grand moutardier du pape, which means "mustard-maker to the pope." Conveniently, he happened to know the perfect candidate; his nephew was a moutardier.

Mayonnaise
Our friends at HowStuffWorks have a great, simple retelling of this tale, so we'll let them do the honors: "Mayonnaise was invented in 1756 by the French chef of the Duc de Richelieu. After the Duc beat the British at Port Mahon, his chef created a victory feast that was to include a sauce made of cream and eggs. Realizing that there was no cream in the kitchen, the chef substituted olive oil for the cream and a new culinary creation was born. The chef named the new sauce "˜Mahonnaise' in honor of the Duc's victory."

lea.jpgWorcestershire sauce
Worcestershire sauce was invented accidentally in England by Brits trying to ape what they thought was authentic Indian food. In this case, the demanding diner was one Lord Marcus Sandy, a former colonial governor of Bengal. Having grown attached to a particular flavor of Indian sauce, he recruited two drugstore owners, John Lea and William Perrins, in hopes that they could recreate it based on his descriptions. Lea and Perrins thought they'd make a profit by selling the leftovers in their store, but frankly, the sauce they created had a powerful stench "“ so they stashed it in the basement and forgot about it for two years while it aged into something that tasted much better. (We suspect that in a similar manner, we are harboring the next big culinary phenomenon in the back of our fridge.)

Lea and Perrins sold the stuff to a boatload of customers, literally; they convinced British passenger ships to carry some aboard. Presumably they didn't mention the way they'd come across their secret recipe since it probably would have made most people seasick.

This article was written by Mary Carmichael and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.
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July 16, 2008 - 6:23am
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