American beauty

American beauty

Aylin Öney Tan -
American beauty Every time I squeeze a squirt of ketchup onto my food (which I seldom do, I must say), I cannot help but think of Gestalt psychology. No, I’m not talking about a Sheldon case in the “Big Bang Theory!” Ketchup and Gestalt theory has a strange link in my mind, and even more strangely, is further related to globalism and imperialism, and to that of the history of the tomato. 

Tomatoes are a gift of the new world to the old world. No doubt about it. It is hard to imagine how the cuisines of certain countries, especially those in the Mediterranean and Middle East, were before the existence of tomatoes. The pre-tomato era must have been pretty bland, or on the contrary, more diverse, but now it is simply not possible to judge as our palates are accustomed to the indispensable, irresistible and invasive tomato flavor. It seems to me that the tomato taste has taken over every single entity of cookery in the whole Mediterranean basin. The reality is that this American beauty, together with its native homeland partner, the red hot pepper, has dyed many cuisines of the world with a blood red color. There is no turning back. We have surrendered. We are all addicted to the tomato. 

The tomato adapted to this part of the world in the most creative and imaginative ways, perhaps more so than its native land. Tomatoes make their way into sauces, dishes, salads, are eaten raw, cooked, baked and transformed into pastes, or pickled, dried etc., even made into jams and sweet preserves. But one tomato creation still belongs totally to its original lands, a taste so truly American: The globally ubiquitous ketchup. 
Ketchup consists of many ingredients, the foremost of course tomatoes, but we view the ketchup taste as a whole, not with its parts, even not with that of the tomato to single out. The ketchup taste is an archetypal taste, a most typical classic. Like in Gestalt theory, one no longer conceives its components like tomatoes, onions, spices, vinegar, sugar and salt one by one, but it is conceived as a single primal taste. In a way, ketchup as a whole is greater, or other than, the sum of its parts. It is the Gestalt answer to how we perceive taste. The amalgamation of sweet, savory, sour and spicy components of ketchup builds up to a single flavor we know as the ketchup taste.

As American it is, we all know that ketchup originally had an Asian-European past, with a story of a truly fascinating voyage through the history of trade. 

Based on Southeast Asian fish sauces, the idea was happily adapted by the British. In the early 1700s bottled ketchup imported from Asian countries was a prestige product in England. Soon recipes started to appear trying to imitate the luxury import. As early as 1742, in a London cookbook, there was a recipe on how “to Make Katch-Up that will keep good Twenty Years.” Of course there was not a single tomato on the scene yet. There would have to be another century for tomatoes to be included in ketchup or catsup recipes. In the new world, Americans started to make their version sweeter and sourer, thicker in consistency and most important it was based solely on tomatoes. 

We now think of ketchup as a truly American phenomenon, despite its other historical components. In a way, the American-ness of ketchup is again like its holistic taste; we no longer think of its deep-rooted past going back to Chinese, Malay, Vietnamese or Indonesian sauces, or the British and Dutch colonialist connections, or how it was transferred to the new world, and how it got so tomato-centric. In 1878, when Mark Twain listed the American foods he missed most when traveling in Europe, item 57 was mashed potatoes and number 58 was, guess what, Catsup. 

Seeing this, the great American food writer MFK Fisher wrote beautifully about one sinful moment of her own story of eating mashed potatoes with a cupful of ketchup, a forbidden fruit of her childhood that she was not allowed to taste, as it was too “common.” She wrote: “The potatoes were light, whipped to a firm cloud with rich hot milk, faintly yellow from ample butter. I put them in a big warmed bowl, made a dent about the size of a respectable coffee cup, and filled it to the brim with catsup from a large, full, vulgar bottle that stood beside my table mat where a wineglass would be at an ordinary, commonplace, everyday banquet. Mine was, as I have said, delicious.”

If ketchup conquered the palates of great American writers in such a way, there is only one option for the rest of us: To surrender to the captive power of the holistic taste of the American beauty! 

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Week: Here is an interesting, almost controversial ketchup recipe to share. Its emphasis is on fruit, rather than tomatoes. Take 6 cups each of chopped tomatoes and chopped fruits, the latter consisting of equal parts of apples, pears, peaches, and plums; put them in a preserving pot with 1 cup chopped onions and 2-3 garlic cloves. As the final sauce will be sieved or processed in a blender, don’t bother to peel the tomatoes and fruits. Add 2 cinnamon sticks and 1 teaspoon each of allspice, cloves, black mustard seeds and slightly crushed whole black pepper. You may add also 1 teaspoon of hot red pepper flakes. Also add 2 cups cider vinegar, 2 cups sugar and 2 heaped teaspoons salt. Mix thoroughly and let simmer over medium heat for about 1.5 – 2 hours or until thick. Let cool, remove the cinnamon sticks and pass through a sieve or process in a blender. Transfer the sauce back to pot and bring back to boil briefly until the desired ketchup consistency is achieved. At this stage you can adjust the flavors, add more heat or increase the spices or salt etc. Pour into wide neck sterilized bottles while still warm. This fruity ketchup will definitely improve with time and will keep long in a dark cool corner of your larder. Perfect with grilled chicken or meatballs.