I’ve been on a condiment jag lately, if you haven’t noticed. With Labor Day weekend coming up, I’ve been dreaming of the summer’s last official barbecue – hamburgers. I love hamburgers and when we were kids, my mom would sometimes fry up burgers in a cast iron skillet and we’d gobble them up on Sunday mornings after church. To me, homemade burgers were nearly as good as homemade beef pho noodle soup. It’s no coincidence that both are ‘have it your way’ kinds of foods.
Like Vietnamese pho and banh mi sandwiches, I like to personalize my hamburgers, dressing it with carefully layered accoutrements before taking my first bite. On the bottom half of the bun, lots of rich mayonnaise touching both sides of the sliced tomato. On the top half of the bun, the tomato ketchup should flavor the meat, onion and cheese with its tangy, salty, heady edge. Ketchup punctuates a hamburger with brightness.
I’ve tackled homemade mayonnaise, Vietnamese chile garlic sauce, and Thai-style Sriracha sauce but I didn’t think of making ketchup myself until I noticed Saveur magazine's umami ketchup recipe in the September 2009 issue. The fanciful ketchup recipe comes from the popular Umami Burger restaurant in Los Angeles. What made it umami? For one, ripe tomatoes are extremely umami laden, and the restaurant includes oyster sauce, tamari, Worcestershire sauce, and anchovies for extra savory depth. The use of salty, briny ingredients in the recipe reminded me of traditional Vietnamese tomato sauces employed to nap fried whole fish, tofu and the like. In fact, in Rick Stein’s travel show on Vietnam, he makes that kind of sauce, seasoning it with fish sauce for savoriness. Stein uses fish sauce just like a Vietnamese cook would. Ketchup’s East-West connection got me to thinking and researching.
Ketchup’s Asian Roots
According to one of my go-to reference books The Oxford Companion to Food, western ketchup borrows its name from the Amoy Chinese (Hokkien/Fujian) term ketsiap, which means fermented fish sauce and is related to the Malay term kechap (now written as kecap as in delectable kecap manis sweet soy sauce). The word and sauce was transported to Europe by Dutch trader, and over time, the original Asian condiment became transformed into many kinds of ketchup (I’ve seen mushroom and walnut versions mentioned), but the tomato version we know today reigns supreme.
The notion of having umami savoriness was central to the original version of ketchup and modern renditions such as that from Umami Burger uphold that concept. I made a batch of the Umami ketchup from Saveur and it was good but tasted like Vietnamese tomato sauces I grew up with. It may be something new for many people but it was not attention getting as ketchup. It didn’t make me want to eat more of it like I would something filled with umami or MSG. (See the post on MSG, fake MSG,and umami.) It wasn’t addictively delicious.
So what if I were to try to take ketchup back a little closer to its Asian roots? I thought of Cholimex, a mildly sweet version of Sriracha chile sauce that’s made in Vietnam. Cholimex tuong ot (chile sauce) lists tomato as the first ingredient. But there was no fish sauce. Chef Robert Danhi, author of Southeast Asian Flavors, says that he knows Southeast Asian cooks who put fish sauce in their Sriracha sauce. So what if I riffed on those cooks to create a thick, tomatoey ketchup with Southeast Asian overtones?
The spicy ketchup recipe below is what I developed. It is ummmm good with the mellow sweetness of sautéed shallots and palm sugar, heat of fresh chiles, and savory depth of fish sauce and this stealth ingredient: fermented shrimp sauce (mam tom). If you don’t have the fine shrimp sauce (buy it at Asian markets) use Malay and Indonesia belancan (blanchan) or use extra fish sauce and salt. I just posted details on shrimp sauce (mam tom) to encourage you to use it. My husband and I have been eating spoonfuls of this ketchup.
Spicy Umami Ketchup
For the canned tomato, use a brand that actually tastes like ripe tomatoes, such as Muir Glen organic. If you use peeled canned tomatoes, puree it first in a blender and add 1 to 2 tablespoons of tomato paste to thicken. Ripe fresh tomato can be used too with the paste but it may not have the same thickness. Homemade ketchup is lighter in color (think brick red instead of deep red) than store bought ketchup because the sautéed shallot lightens the results. Commercial ketchup often employs onion powder.
Makes about 2 2/3 cups
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 pound shallots, chopped
2 large moderately hot chiles, such as Fresno
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon light (regular) soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons fine shrimp sauce (start with lesser amount if you're new to this condiment)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 (28 ounce) can ground peeled tomatoes (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
3 1/2 ounces palm sugar, chopped, or light brown sugar
1. Heat the oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the chiles and cook for another minute, until slightly soft and aromatic. Add the fish sauce, both kinds of soy sauce, shrimp sauce, and salt. Let things bubble for 1 to 2 minutes to concentrate the flavor.
2. Add the tomato, vinegar, and sugar. Simmer for 45 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened and has reduced by nearly half. Remove from the heat and cool for 20 minutes.
3. Puree in a blender until smooth. Taste and adjust the flavor as needed. Transfer to a jar and set aside, uncovered, to cool to room temperature. Cap and chill before using. You can probably store for up 2 months in the refrigerator.
Try this ketchup out and let me know your thoughts and tweaks