To many outside of the Philippines, the phrase ‘Banana ketchup’ might sound like an April fools promotion from the Heinz corporation.
However, if we take a look back at the history of Ketchup and where it originated, tomatoes are just as much an oddity in the ingredients list as their tropical yellow replacements.
The name ketchup is actually an anglicized version of the word ‘Ke-tsiap’ from a dialect native to the Fujian region of China. Hundreds of years ago, Ke-tsiap was known to the Chinese locals (and the foreign merchants that took a liking to it) as a fermented fish sauce, similar to Patis in the Philippines or Nam Pla in Thailand.
This salty condiment was carried across the high seas, and once the treasured reserves were all dried up, British sailors began recreating the umami-rich sauce back home. Early recipes used anchovies, spices and nuts to copy the flavours, eventually landing on mushrooms as the ‘ideal’ base ingredient.
This thick grey ‘ketchup’ set sail once more, crossing the Atlantic and finding a new American audience in the early 19th century. It was at this point that cooks started experimenting with new flavours for the condiment, using an ingredient that up until then had been deeply mistrusted: tomatoes.
As a member of the Solanacae family (known for the likes of poison nightshade), many people in the 1800s believed that tomatoes were toxic - particularly when raw. However, because of the cooking process and the addition of salt, vinegar and sugar, American customers began trusting the red sauce - and subsequently slathering it on everything they could get their hands on.
Over the next 150 years the word ‘tomato’ was dropped from ketchup's name and it fast became the most popular condiment in the United States - and uncoincidentally, all the countries under the US sphere of influence.
This then leads us to 1940s Philippines (one such country with a new penchant for fast food). The new found shortages caused by the war effort made tomatoes near impossible to come by, largely due to the fact that tomatoes aren’t naturally grown in the region.
Enter Maria Orosa.
Having studied as a chemist at university in both Manila and Washington, Orosa went on to specialize in food chemistry, focusing on inventing new recipes.
The story goes that homesick American GI’s stationed in the Philippines wanted a replacement for their bottles of Heinz back home. Maria decided to replace the tomatoes with a fruit that was far easier to come by in the tropics, and Banana ketchup was born.
Yet, as nice as this story is - it only tells part of the story, and pays little to no attention to the Filipino people themselves - which was actually the main reason Maria studied food chemistry in the first place.
Orosa’s main drive came from a desire to help the Philippines become less dependent on foods imported from foreign countries (such as the United States) and tackle their food shortages by finding uses for ingredients that grew plentifully in their own soil.
Sure, the Americans had a profound impact on the flavours and techniques of modern Filipino cooking, but that takes away from the ingenuity of chefs like Maria Orosa who took the influences that passed through her country and made them into something new entirely.
Banana ketchup is just one of many instances where Filipino cuisine has shown an uncanny inventiveness over the years- and it is this ethos of influence and adaptation that has produced such a unique and beloved cuisine.