Ketchup has taken a long time to become what it is today. Can we risk messing with perfection?

A condiment company has developed a ketchup made with tomatoes that were grown under harsh “Mars-like”conditions.

First, the good news: A condiment company has developed a ketchup made with tomatoes that were grown under harsh “Mars-like”conditions. This sauce, which has been under development for two years, holds out hope that should humans ever need to inhabit the red planet, we would not, at least, be deprived of our favourite accompaniment for french fries (which also could be made on Mars, as experiments with potatoes are under progress).

Which brings us to the bad news. Perfect as ketchup is for french fries, it is more than that — it could very nearly be the “perfect food”, should such a thing exist. It is, as food theorist Elizabeth Rozin once wrote, the “Esperanto” of food, which finds a use in almost every corner of the globe, whether as a dip, curry base or in a dessert (Canada’s infamous ketchup cake). Its origins are hazy — China is believed to have created the Ur-ketchup centuries ago as a tomato-less, fish-based sauce that gave food the necessary dollop of umami. From there, it seems to have travelled to southeast Asia, where it became kecap, and then on to Great Britain as catsup and, finally, the US, where tomatoes were added to the sauce and it was rechristened ketchup. This final station was where it was perfected into the vinegary, corn syrup-laden mass-market condiment to which the world is now hooked. In other words, ketchup has taken time and has had to travel widely to become what it is today. Can we, even with the best intentions, risk messing with it?

And, yet, what are the options? Life on any planet that is not Earth would be strange and sad and terrifying. And while dipping a fry in a sauce that isn’t exactly the right combination of sweet, sour, salty and umami would be almost as bad, would it be worse than a ketchup-less existence? The horror!

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 12, 2021 under the title ‘Sauce in space’.

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