Kitchen & Pantry

Mango ketchup and why it’s not all that weird

casaveneracion.com Mango ketchup

Not too long ago, I remember getting into a discussion (on Facebook, was it?) about how Filipinos love sweetening everything including spaghetti sauce, hotdogs and ketchup. The popularity of banana ketchup is just one of the proofs.

A lot of foreigners find the very idea of a banana ketchup weird — gross even — because, in Western culture, ketchup is made with tomatoes and, therefore, tart. Although sugar is an ingredient of ketchup, the amount added is just enough to cut the acidity but not the overall tartness. In the American English dictionary, ketchup is a red sauce made with tomatoes.

In Asia, there is a class of sauces called kecap (sometimes, kicap), pronounced as ketchup, none of which are made from tomatoes. There are so many varieties, some are salty and some are sweet. In short, kecap is a generic term for a lot of sauces — from the salty kecap asin (basically, soy sauce) to the sweet and syrupy kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) to the countless varieties of kecap ikan (basically, fish sauce or what we call patis in the Philippines).

The curious thing is that the Asian kecap is older — as a word and as a food — than its Western counterpart.

The word ketchup exemplifies the types of modifications that can take place in borrowing-both of words and substances. The source of our word ketchup may be the Malay word kēchap, possibly taken into Malay from the Cantonese dialect of Chinese. Kēchap, like ketchup, was a sauce, but one without tomatoes; rather, it contained fish brine, herbs, and spices.

How the Asian kēchap was Westernized is even more interesting.

In the late 1600s, English sailors visiting Malaysia and Singapore were so impressed with the sauce that they took samples home. English cooks attempted to duplicate the spicy sauce, but without access to some of the exotic Asian ingredients, they improvised with cucumbers, mushrooms, nuts, oysters, and other variants.

One hundred years later, New Englanders created the definitive tomato ketchup when Maine seamen returned from Mexico and the Spanish West Indies with seeds of an exotic New World fruit called tomato.

So, there. We have a case of the West borrowing a concept and its name, and modifying (bastardizing, even, if you want to be politically provocative) both because the Western cooks couldn’t successfully duplicate the original. The crazy thing is that, centuries later, a lot of Westerners (including Westernized Asians) think that they invented ketchup and anything similarly named but different in substance from what they know as ketchup, such as our banana ketchup, is something other than ketchup. Well, banana ketchup may not be within the purview of Western ketchup but it most certainly falls within the generic kēchap which is both mother and father of the Western ketchup.

I mention all that because I want to put into perspective the definition of ketchup in relation to its ancestor, the kēchap, for proper appreciation of the mango ketchup.

Despite the Western spelling (the Philippines was an American colony for almost half a century, after all), it would be a mistake to define the ketchupness of the mango ketchup by the very narrow and exclusive Western standard of what ketchup is. It is a condiment and a sauce and, ergo, essentially a kecap.

For whatever it’s worth, color aside, the taste and texture of the mango ketchup more closely resembles the Western ketchup than kecap asin, kecap manis or kecap ikan. It is tart rather than sweet (vinegar is among the ingredients) and it has that thick puree consistency.

Yes, I like it very much.

Would I substitute it for regular tomato ketchup? Heck, I would if it were cheaper. A bottle costs PHP74.50 (US$1.72), about 40% to 50% more than tomato ketchup, which is not really surprising because mangoes are more expensive than tomatoes.

Am I going to use it as though it were tomato ketchup? No, I think not. So how do I intend to use it? Well, let’s start with this.

I had two large bangus (milkfish) belly fillets which I seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged in flour then pan fried until a crisp crust formed. I also julienned bell peppers, finely sliced a large onion and minced three cloves of garlic, all of which I sautéed for about a minute so that they were all still slightly crisp.

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Then, I poured about a quarter cup of the mango ketchup into a pan, added about one-third cup of sweet chili sauce, stirred them together and heated them just until the mixture thinned to pouring consistency.

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I placed the two fish fillets on a platter, topped them with the lightly crisp vegetables, then I poured the sauce over and around everything. It was a mighty good dish.

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