A Brief History of Ketchup and Mustard

Your favorite condiments have unusual origins.
Your favorite condiments have unusual origins. / natapetrovich/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Around 300 BCE, people in China were experimenting with making pungent pastes out of fermented fish guts. A few centuries later, the Greek historian Pliny shared a method to treat scorpion stings using the ground-up seeds of a common plant. These are the unlikely origin stories of ketchup and mustard, two condiments that people in the United States spend over $1 billion on annually. How did two condiments with thousands of years of history between them become associated with hot dogs and hamburgers?

Mustard: From Medicine to Tasty Treat

Mustard has been around for a while—in fact, the plant the condiment comes from may have been among the first crops ever cultivated.

There are multiple species of mustard—most are members of the Brassica or Sinapis genera—and the plant (which is closely related to broccoli and cabbage) and its seeds first appear in the archaeological record in China around 6800 years ago. Before they became a condiment, the seeds harvested from the plant were used as a spice and a medicine; Indian and Sumerian texts from around 2000 BCE mention them in this context.

The paste-like form of mustard showed up roughly 2500 years ago. The Greeks and Romans blended ground-up mustard seeds with unfermented grape juice, or must, to make a smooth mixture. The first version of this concoction wasn’t necessarily food—it may have been used more for its medicinal properties, and not completely without reason: Mustard seeds are rich in compounds called glucosinolates, and when these particles get broken down, they produce isothiocyanates, powerful antioxidants that fight inflammation and give mustard its nose-tingling kick.

The Greeks and Romans applied mustard’s medicinal properties to almost every ailment imaginable—Hippocrates even praised its ability to soothe aches and pains. Many of mustard’s historical uses don’t hold up to modern science—for instance, it’s not a cure for epilepsy, as the Romans once believed—but it’s still used as a holistic treatment for arthritis, back pain, and even sore throats.

While experimenting with mustard as medicine, the Greeks and Romans discovered that pulverized mustard seeds were pretty tasty. In the first century CE, Roman agriculture writer Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella published the first recorded recipe for mustard as a condiment in his tome De Re Rustica. It called for an acid and ground mustard seeds—the same basic formula that's used to make mustard today.

Ketchup: From Fish Sauce to Plum Paste

Meanwhile, the evolution of another popular condiment was underway halfway across the world.

Ketchup first appeared in China around 300 BCE. In the Amoy dialect of Chinese, kôe-chiap means "the brine of pickled fish," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Nineteenth century ethnologist Terrien de Lacouperie thought the word might have come from a Chinese community living outside of China. In any case, the name is pretty much the only thing that version of ketchup had in common with the bottle of red stuff in your fridge. It was actually much more like garum, a Mediterranean fish sauce that was once wildly popular in Ancient Roman cuisine. (Modern versions of garum can actually be found today in high-end restaurants like Denmark’s Noma.) Some have even suggested that Asian fish sauce is a descendant of garum.

The Chinese fish sauce known as ketchup was likely made by fermenting ingredients like fish entrails, soybeans, and meat byproducts. Fermentation creates byproducts that can be of great interest to human beings. One such byproduct is the ethanol that gives us beer and wine through alcohol fermentation. Another is monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG. A lot of theories fly around about MSG, but it’s worth pointing out that glutamates appear naturally in all sorts of foods, from tomatoes to beef to parmesan cheese. Our own bodies produce glutamates. And MSG can give foods a savory, hard-to-define flavor called umami.

The fish paste that was created by fermentation possessed this umami, and was used to add a salty, savory depth of flavor to a variety of dishes. And because fermentation can breed so-called “good” microorganisms while inhibiting the growth of the bad bacteria that cause foods to rot, this version of ketchup could be stored on ships for months without spoiling, an important factor at a time when trade routes could take months to traverse.

As ketchup spread to different parts of the globe, it went through a few transformations. Trade routes carried it to Indonesia and the Philippines, and it was likely around this part of the world that British traders discovered and fell in love with the funky seasoning. And as soon as ketchup landed in Great Britain in the early 1700s, Western cooks found ways to make it their own. One of the first English recipes for ketchup, published in Eliza Smith’s 1727 book The Compleat Housewife, calls for anchovies, shallots, ginger, cloves, and horseradish.

Some recipes used oysters as the seafood component, while others cut the fish out of the fish sauce completely. Popular bases for ketchup around this time included peaches, plums, celery seed, mushrooms, nuts, lemon, and beer. Like their predecessor, these sauces were often salty, flavorful, and had a long shelf-life, but beyond that, they could vary greatly. The word ketchup evolved into a catch-all term for any spiced condiment served with a meal—"spiced" referring to ingredients like cinnamon or nutmeg rather than heat level. Walnut is said to have been Jane Austen's preferred ketchup variety.

A Mustard Makeover

Mustard received its own makeover when it was imported to different parts of Europe. The Romans invaded the land now known as France in the 1st century BCE, and the mustard seeds they brought with them thrived in the region’s fertile soil. Locals, including the monks living in the French countryside, loved the new condiment, and by the 9th century, monasteries had turned mustard production into a major source of income.

Mustard found its way into less humble settings as well. Pope John XXII was said to be such a fan that he appointed a Grand Moutardier du Pape, or “Grand Mustard-Maker to the Pope.” John XXII was one of the Avignon popes, who lived in what is now France rather than Rome, and he created the mustard-making position specially for his unemployed nephew who lived in Dijon, which was already the mustard capital of France by the 14th century.

Even French royalty developed a taste for mustard. King Louis XI made it an essential part of his diet, going so far as to travel with a personal pot of the sauce so he’d never have to eat a meal without it.

Dijon's Secret Ingredient

There are many types of mustard—yellow, spicy brown, English, Chinese, and German, to name a few. But to some condiment connoisseurs, mustard is still synonymous with the creamy Dijon variety that first took hold of France centuries ago.

In 1634, it was declared that true French mustard could only be made in Dijon. The recipe was an important part of French cuisine, but as one innovator proved, there was still room left for improvement.

Dijon native Jean Naigeon tinkered with the formula in 1752, swapping the traditional vinegar with verjuice, or the sour juice of unripened grapes. The simple change gave dijon the smooth taste and creamy texture that’s associated with the product today. Most modern dijon uses white wine or wine vinegar to imitate that original verjuice flavor. And most of it isn’t made in Dijon. Unlike champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano, which must come from the areas who lend their names to the products, dijon no longer enjoys “protected designation of origin” status.

The dijon you’re most likely to find in your local supermarket is probably Grey Poupon. In 1866, inventor Maurice Grey teamed up with financier Auguste Poupon to revolutionize the mustard world. Grey’s automated mustard-making machine brought the artisan product into the Industrial Age. Today, most Grey-Poupon mustard is made in American factories.

Ketchup and "Love Apples"

While mustard was flourishing, ketchup was still figuring out how it would leave its mark on the white T-shirt of history. And after arriving in America by way of British colonization, the sauce joined forces with the ingredient that would define it for decades to come: the tomato.

The British had experimented with turning nearly everything they could find into ketchup, but tomatoes were the exception—at least in part because the New World fruit was believed, by some, to be poisonous when it was first introduced to Europe by explorers in the 16th century. It’s possible that some wealthy English people did get sick from eating tomatoes, though not for the reasons they suspected. If they were eating off lead and pewter plates, the acid from the tomatoes may have leached lead into their food, thus giving them a case of lead poisoning they might have mistaken for tomato poisoning. A lot of food historians doubt how much influence this could have had on public perception, though, arguing that lead poisoning takes too long to develop to get connected to any single dish. Instead, it could just be that tomatoes looked like plants that Europeans knew were poisonous, and so were branded with guilt by association. The bottom line is, the reasons are contested, but by the late 16th century, you can definitely find anti-tomato texts in English.

This misconception about the risks of tomatoes may have persisted among English Americans if it weren’t for the efforts of some passionate tomato advocates. One of these crusaders was Philadelphia scientist and horticulturist James Mease. He referred to tomatoes as “love apples,” and in 1812, he published the first known recipe for tomato ketchup.

Sadly, the name love apples didn’t stick, but tomato ketchup did. People with fears about tomatoes felt safer eating them in processed form. And ketchup may have gotten an assist from a bit of old-fashioned quackery. Dr. John Cook Bennett touted tomatoes as a cure for maladies ranging from diarrhea to indigestion. He published his own recipes for tomato ketchup, and eventually the product was being sold in pill form as patent medicine, helping to sway public perception about the benefits of tomatoes.

In reality, though, early tomato ketchup was actually less safe than tomatoes from the vine. The first commercial products were poorly preserved, resulting in jars that were teeming with bacteria—and not the good kind. Some manufacturers cut corners by pumping the condiment with dangerous levels of artificial preservatives. Coal tar was also added to ketchup to give it its red color.

It was the Heinz company that was largely responsible for elevating ketchup from potential botulism-in-a-bottle to staple condiment.

Heinz's Ketchup Innovation

Pennsylvania entrepreneur Henry J. Heinz got his start in the condiment business in 1869 by making and selling his mother’s horseradish recipe. Seven years later, he saw an opportunity to bring some must-needed quality to the ketchup market. The first bottles of Heinz ketchup hit stores in 1876, and in the years that followed, they would do several things to set themselves apart from the competition.

For starters, Heinz got rid of the coal tar. Instead, he blended distilled vinegar with ripe, fresh tomatoes. His formula was shelf-stable and it tasted good, but that alone may not have been enough to make Heinz a household name. Arguably the biggest change he made was packaging his products in clear, glass bottles. Before that, ketchup had been sold in brown bottles to hide its poor quality. With Heinz, customers knew exactly what they were getting.

The Heinz ketchup bottle is one of the most iconic pieces of food packaging ever created, and it’s likely shaped your perception of the product. This extends even to the spelling of the word. If you write C-A-T-S-U-P you may get funny looks, but it’s a perfectly valid old spelling for the word, and for years was actually the preferred spelling in America. Heinz labeled his condiment ketchup with a K as another way to differentiate it from its catsup with a C counterparts. Today Heinz’s version is widely regarded as the correct spelling.

Yellow Mustard and the Hot dog: A Match Made in Culinary Heaven

Mustard also arrived in America shortly after the first European settlers did, but All-American yellow mustard didn’t appear until much later—at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, when the R.T. French Company debuted its new “cream salad mustard.”

Distracted fairgoers may have overlooked the product if it wasn’t for a special new ingredient. Mustard is naturally brown or beige, but Brothers George and Francis French added turmeric to their mustard to give it a neon yellow look.

For a canvas to showcase their condiment, the Frenches chose the hot dog—a dish that was fairly new to Americans at the time. The R.T. French Company’s cream salad mustard, or French’s yellow mustard, is still a classic hot dog topping more than century later.

Ketchup and mustard have no doubt secured their positions as culinary heavyweights. Surprisingly, though, neither product is the top-selling condiment in the U.S. That distinction belongs to ranch dressing, which is a $1 billion industry as of 2019.