I am not a fan of needless work. But once, out of craving and necessity, I made my own ketchup. My husband and I had been in North Africa for a year and a half by 1985, and French fries were on my mind.
The Tunisians liked potatoes and often you would find them in interesting places—for instance, they would turn up fried and stuffed alongside a runny egg inside a baguette. I liked them that way, especially with harissa smeared on the bread. Pomme frites were available in the towns at restaurants. But the day I broke with the bottle-from-a-store mindset, my Peace Corps cookbook was open and the ketchup was easy: vinegar, sugar, tomato paste, salt, black pepper, plus a little clove, cinnamon, celery and garlic salt. I mixed until everything was more or less smooth, ran my pinkie along the edge of the bowl and flicked it with my tongue. No waxing poetic about the tastes of home can match the reality of that first swipe through the thick sauce.
We all like to make things and we all, it seems, like ketchup. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. households have a bottle in the refrigerator. I pulled out my bottle today after making my ketchup recipe again to compare flavors. No one, after all, wants inferior ketchup.
But it wasn’t. The texture was not as smooth since there was no corn syrup involved and I didn’t expend much effort at grinding the spices. But the taste? Yes, this would have satisfied my craving back in 1985 without a problem.
Many of you know that ketchup came to us from Asia—it was originally fish sauce, thin, bitter and salty, called ke-tsiap in Chinese. The British changed it slightly and it lived on without any tomato involvement for 200-plus years. We were so leery of tomatoes in the New World, distracted by ideas that they may cause madness or at best cure pustules, that it wasn’t until the 1830s that we stepped into the brave new world of eating tomatoes. Once we befriended the tomato, all sorts of people jumped into the condiment market but unfortunately many sauces came out of their bottles rank and unsavory, partly due to the use of unripe tomatoes and, at times, unclean bottling techniques. Henry Heinz, however, was among the first to use ripe tomatoes and struck gold with his combination of flavors.
He added sugar, a dramatic amount of vinegar, and spices. There are five known fundamental, some would say primal, tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami, and Heinz hit all the notes. Not many foods can do that.
No wonder I was craving a taste.
1 6-ounce can of tomato paste
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
½ tablespoon pepper
Onion, garlic and celery salt to taste
Dash ground clove and ground cinnamon to taste
Mix all ingredients well.
Recipe from Peace Corps Tunisia Cookbook 1984
Nina Furstenau teaches food writing in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. She is the author of “Savor Missouri, River Hill Country Food and Wine” and “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland,” and writes a column, A Spiced Life, for the Columbia Tribune newspaper.