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For a big part of the world, ketchup means one thing: a glass bottle with a glossy white cap and a “57” embossed on the neck. (Real ones know to tap the “57” to coax the ketchup out.) In 1876, when H.J. Heinz’s newly-minted company released a sauce called ‘catsup,’ it quickly became a fixture at ballparks, cookouts and in the fridges of American homes.
Over the next century, Heinz captured North American and European markets with their historic formula, and helped to create a universal understanding of a beloved condiment. In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote  that the flavour concocted by Heinz collided with every sensor on the human palate in a way that no other ketchup had come close to replicating.
So when Heinz launched its ketchup in India in 2000, it should have been an easy sell. After all, this was the country where children and grownups alike reached for what we call “tomato sauce” to accompany foods as varied as khichdi, aloo tikkis, Parle-G biscuits and dosas.
But Heinz couldn’t quite crack the market. In India, condiments go so far beyond mustard and mayonnaise that it presented an entirely new field of battle. Here, ketchup’s great competitor was chutney, a household staple and a word that contains multitudes. For a ketchup to work in India, it had to tap into something greater than tomato, sugar and vinegar. More formidably for Heinz, at least two brands, Kissan and Maggi, had already laid the groundwork and were locked in an intense turf war while at it.
To the tanginess of tomato, both Kissan and Maggi had added the kick of chilli and spices. Indians had learned that ketchup could be much more than what they got in a storied bottle of Heinz. As brand consultant Harish Bijoor noted, “The chutney replacement is here.”
The Spice of Life
he origins of ketchup go back to pre-colonial East Asia, where fish innards, soybeans and animal by-products were mashed into a paste that eventually travelled along trade routes to British colonies. By the eighteenth century, ketchup recipes were common, though a foundation in tomatoes was still a while away. Until then, the British were using mushrooms, walnuts, oysters and other aromatics to put together a salty syrup.
Tomato ketchup entered the picture around 1812, more than 300 years after Colombian contact introduced South American tomatoes to the rest of the world. (Portuguese explorers brought them to the subcontinent along with chilli peppers and other precious foods. India is now among the largest producers of tomatoes in the world.)
A few decades later, recipes began showing up in cookbooks in the British Raj. For instance, Mrs. J. Bartley’s Indian Cookery General for Young House-Keepers, published in the early 1900s, had recipes for several different types of tomato sauce. “It was obviously becoming popular,” food writer Vikram Doctor said in an email, “and some of these recipes are quite spicy, so one can see how they started appealing to Indian tastes.”
In the mid-1930s, a man named Francis J. Mitchell leased a 720-acre plot in Okara district, in present-day Pakistan, from the government of Punjab, turning the land into a fruit farm. His sons Leonard and Richard continued the endeavour, focussing their efforts on citrus fruits and making preserves and squash. When the Second World War broke out, they opened a new factory in Bangalore to meet the ever-increasing demand for canned supplies. The company was called Kissan Fruit Products Pvt Ltd. (The name “Kissan” emerged from the spot near the processing unit in Punjab where farmers would sell fresh fruits, a moniker given by locals.)
The Mitchell brothers sold Kissan to the Bangalore liquor baron Vittal Mallya of United Breweries in 1950. Then in 1993, UB sold the company to an entity owned by the Indian subsidiary of the multinational company Unilever. In the years since, the world around Kissan transformed. But the brand became inseparable from its tomato ketchup.
In the mid-1980s, Nestlé corporation’s Maggi, famous in India as a brand of instant noodles, was looking to enter the sauce market. Nestlé wanted to find a way to stand out, Sangeeta Talwar, former executive vice president for marketing at Nestlé India, remembered. “How do you create competitive differentiation for a product for which, if you actually close your eyes, there will be very little difference?”
Talwar had joined Nestlé in 1979, and her office in New Delhi was a short distance from the company’s Home Economics Department, where culinary experiments took place. “We used to do all the recipes at the head office,” Talwar told me, “and then we would go to the factory and ask them to commercialise it as best they could. There was a long process of development.”
“How do you create competitive differentiation for a product for which, if you actually close your eyes, there will be very little difference?”
Back then, most companies used paste instead of whole tomatoes to maintain consistency, and limit their dependence on seasonal crops. “At that time, no thickening agents were permitted, so typically, every real tomato ketchup had to use a large quantity of tomato paste to get a reasonable consistency,” wrote Talwar in her 2018 book, The Two-Minute Revolution: The Art of Growing Business.
The high cost of tomatoes around this time meant that smaller regional players were using pumpkin––kaddu in Hindi––to make tomato ketchup. The food historian Kurush Dalal told me that it wasn’t uncommon to find glass bottles of kaddu ketchup, made with vinegar, salt and some spices, at roadside stalls that sold samosas and sandwiches.
There was clear demand for a filler-free ketchup. In 1985, Voltas Limited’s new food division Volfarm released a TV commercial with a catchy jingle. When an older man offers a bottle of Volfarm ketchup to a guest at a party, the latter refuses. “Isme kaddu nahi zara,” the man insists. On trying it, the guest is shocked by its naturalness. He turns to the man’s wife to ask if she made it at home.
Maggi took the bet to create something different. In 1986, Talwar helped put out the product that would change the game: the Hot & Sweet variant.
The sauce’s flavour hit a familiar balance of sugar and spice that Indians call “chatpata.” Talwar and her team still had problems left to solve, though. One was what she described as making a place for Maggi products within India’s “dal-chawal-roti” culture. At the heart of this puzzle was a condiment many Indians didn’t think twice about: chutney. Maggi had figured that Indians were unlikely to eat a sandwich with ketchup when there was fresh green chutney available. And when tomato and coconut chutney could be cheaply made at home, there seemed to be no need for ketchup on dosa.
A breakthrough came during discussions at a major culinary conference in Singapore. In an attempt to wedge their sauce into a bonda-pakoda-bajji snacking culture, Hot & Sweet had to be positioned not as ketchup, but as an alternative to ketchup. “In our country, a lot of people like to eat chilli, right?” Talwar said. “They like to eat chutney. Why can’t we look at positioning our Hot & Sweet sauce like that? Why don’t we position it as the Indian version of ketchup?”
Hot & Sweet was an almost instant success. Talwar recalled that it captured 40 percent of Maggi’s total ketchup sales, over an eight- to 10-month period. “For a lot of people, it became their ketchup,” she said. “Households actually started keeping both because it became the adult ketchup, and you kept ketchup for the kids.” Kissan eventually launched a competitor brand called TomChi, perhaps the best indicator of Hot & Sweet’s success. The battle had commenced.
he pristine white building could have been any office or shopping complex in New Delhi, but the bevy of balloons and sparkly streamers suggested that something exciting was about to take place. Crowds milled around outside and, at opening time, everyone surged through the glass-panelled doors. It was 13 October 1996. McDonald’s had just opened its first outlet in India.
The beefy BigMac had been swapped out for the chicken-or-vegetarian Maharaja Mac. Banners advertised 12-rupee chilli cheese sandwiches and veggie McNuggets. Women and men in brightly coloured matching shirts and hats stood behind the counter as customers carried plastic trays across spotless floors, holding sandwiches wrapped in butter paper emblazoned with the word “McBurger.”
The 1990s were about to change the way urban India ate. The second phase of India’s ketchup wars was sparked by liberalisation as American fast-food chains like McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut arrived in the middle of the decade, shortly after the economy opened up. Over the years, they would turn the ketchup sachet into a mainstream product, giving them out liberally and gratis with every order.
To supply its condiments in India, McDonald’s picked a company far more modestly sized than Kissan or Maggi. Cremica was started by Mrs. Rajni Bector in 1978, as an ice-cream-making business in Ludhiana. At that point in the 1990s, Cremica’s operations were focussed on biscuits.
Despite having no experience in the sauce business, the opportunity to develop an international standard ketchup—and a vegetarian mayonnaise—was too tempting to pass on. Akshay Bector, Mrs. Bector’s son and the managing director of the Cremica Group, told me that it took an intense period of training and many rounds of quality checks but McDonald’s was ultimately convinced.
Over the years, fast food chains would turn the ketchup sachet into a mainstream product, giving them out liberally and gratis with every order.
“It helped us quickly grasp what was so important about ketchup practically and technically, and what worked and what didn't work,” Akshay said. That included assessing the quality of raw materials, identifying suppliers, and looking for ingredients to import from abroad, including the US. “The multinational companies in India didn’t understand the condiment from this perspective.”
By the turn of the millennium, even the multinational brands had started playing with packaging and branding. Pricing had also become more competitive. Around 2000, a 500g bottle of Maggi’s ketchup sold for ₹55, compared to the ₹65 charged by Heinz. By the 2010s, “pichkoo” packets of ₹15 had become available. “The price going down was the traction point,” Bijoor, the marketing consultant, told me. “That was the point when utilisation became more widespread.”
The sachet innovation is also a key indicator that market penetration has also improved steadily over the years. “The best proxy to measure penetration is to see in what form ketchup is available,” Ankur Bisen, senior partner at consulting firm Technopak Advisors, told me. “You see ketchup available in sachets, in 100ml packs, 50ml packs, refills, family sizes, 500 grams, one kg. Every retail point is designed around those packs. There are small stores that will not carry family packs. But they will carry sachets.”
According to global consumer research firm Kantar Worldpanel, in May 2022, the penetration of the table sauce market in urban India was almost 40 percent, up from 26.1 percent just four years ago. (Kantar’s “penetration” metric is arrived at by dividing the total number of people who bought a brand or category in a given time with the population in consideration.)
A little over a decade ago, ketchup’s penetration was less than 20 percent. Though the impressive growth suggests that the category has added 30 million households since 2010, it still lags well behind established consumer products such as tea (99 percent) and salty snacks (90 percent).
The Advertisement Wars
s tomato sauce became a mainstay of the kitchen shelf in urban homes, the ketchup wars also heated up on newly liberalised satellite television. Marketers latched on to two things to pursue in their advertising: children, and the idea of weird, new, outlandish food habits.
Many “90s kids” may remember one particular advertisement from Kissan, featuring a frequently ridiculed breakfast food. Dismayed at the sight of rava upma on the kitchen counter, a young boy slathers his food with tomato sauce “Just lagao, kuch bhi khao,” the boy says gleefully to his mother. Slather it on, eat it all.
This was a formula that seemed to work. Stories about ketchup tend to take on a life of their own. While searching for purveyors of quirky ketchup combinations, I learned of a pair of sisters who dolloped ketchup onto slices of bread with kara boondi; folks who added generous amounts of tomato sauce to curd rice; still others who just licked it straight off their hands.
Independent consultant Geetu Gidwani Verma, who previously served as executive director for food and refreshments at Hindustan Unilever, told me about a cousin who, as a child, would only eat vegetables with a topping of ketchup. “His mom would say, ‘I keep ketchup, because that's my way to get him to eat,’” she said. “And truth be told, there is something about ketchup that makes food exciting.”
Ketchup advertisers had found a sharp and deeply modern understanding of its place in the Indian palate. The night before we spoke, the 18-year-old son of communications professional Karthik Srinivasan added a side of ketchup to his dosa dinner. “My wife and I try to dissuade him and ask him to use things like chutney or molaga podi, but he refuses,” he said. “All those images of people dunking a samosa or cutlet or French fries into tomato ketchup have endured.”
Akshay Samel, associate vice-president of creative agency The Minimalist, told me that the messaging used by brands remains fairly consistent. “The communication template is, ‘it’s natural,’ and the second is that, ‘it’s tasty.’” There is also a third template, one which Nestlé’s memorable campaigns for Maggi tomato ketchup made their own. Maggi’s spotlight was on flavour. As the versatile actor Jaaved Jaaferi sampled servings of ketchup in prison, as a politician, as a tennis spectator and even as characters Quick Gun Murugun and Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., he repeated a catchphrase that drove home the point Nestlé’s marketing professionals had worked so hard to make: “It’s different.”
For more than three decades now, ketchup brands in India have relied on portraying how tomato sauce can be slipped into ordinary cooking and eating routines. And with Kissan, the focus has remained on the dynamics of a parent-child relationship, or, more specifically, a frustrated mother attempting to get her young child to eat lunch.
In some ads, children in a classroom excitedly open lunchboxes, and whoever has sabzi tossed with ketchup in their roti roll wins the day. One commercial featuring actor Juhi Chawla shows a child attempting to feed slices of tomato to his dog rather than eat it himself. Chawla suggests adding Kissan’s ketchup with “100 percent real tomatoes” to his sandwich. As far as Kissan was concerned, parents were spending the money but the younger members of the household were calling the shots.
Volfarm’s “kaddu nahi zara” commercial was an early precursor to the “100 percent real tomatoes” ads of later years, Srinivasan said. “They were selling something that was relatively less known in India, and using that kind of media spending in those early days of television. It was quite amazing in terms of the kind of behavioural change they were attempting.”
Indian-made ketchups may rely on “real tomatoes” for their messaging, but they are well-known for using preservatives and stabilisers. On the label of a ketchup bottle, once you get past recognisable ingredients such as water, tomato paste, sugar and salt, you’ll often find terms like “acidity regulator,” “stabiliser” and “preservative.”
Swetha Sivakumar, who analyses brands and their ingredients on her blog UpgradeMyFood, has found that a significant number of ketchups made in India contain the preservative sodium benzoate, along with stabilisers such as Xanthan gum and Acetylated Distarch Adipate.
For the ketchup to be shelf-stable, manufacturers use acidity regulators like acetic acid. Sivakumar noted that ketchup brands that eschew preservatives, such as Heinz (whose formula famously forgoes sodium benzoate), tend to be thicker than Indian-made ketchups, which are more liquidy in texture.
A Star Ingredient
here is one more remarkable thread of the desi ketchup story. And that is its use in cooking: ketchup as an ingredient, rather than a condiment. In the 1980s and 1990s, purchasing tomatoes year-round wasn’t exactly cheap. Ketchup became a method of preservation for tomato paste.
When Kurush Dalal was growing up, tomato puree wasn’t easily available in stores. Puree or paste is commonly used as an ingredient in the West. But in India, even today, home cooks are more inclined to cook down chopped tomatoes. In the absence of fresh produce, Dalal’s mother frequently reached for their favourite brand of ketchup while in the kitchen. “Ketchup was a very easy way to have tomatoes accessible throughout the year, including for people in India, especially urban India,” Dalal said.
Ketchup’s ability to punch up a boring butter chicken and other kinds of curries has been a boon to Indian home cooks. In his 2020 book Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, Krish Ashok writes: “When recipes call for tomato puree, noobs add tomato puree, experts add tomato paste and legends add tomato ketchup.” This stacks up with the fact that ketchup manufacturing companies often add spices like pepper, cumin and cloves to their product. (India, of course, is also the land of the “no onion, no garlic” ketchup.)
Some of this might explain why traditional American ketchup fails to impress the Indian palate. Chef Gautam Krishnankutty told me that he’d frequently pack bottles of Maggi ketchup to take back to the US when he lived there. “The American one is quite flat,” he said. “It’s sour and it doesn’t have that spicy note to it,” he said.
Ketchup is both a vehicle for snacky foods, and a beneficiary of the growing popularity of food that were once offbeat or simply out of reach for most Indians. One cuisine that was instrumental in making tomato sauce irresistible to Indian palates is “Chinese food,” or the Indo-Chinese hybrid that was once a treat for urban, well-heeled Indians, and is now a favourite in homes, snack carts and dhabas around the country.
This sweet-and-sour style of cooking relies heavily on the balance of soy sauce and tomato ketchup. Krishnankutty said that in a classic chilli chicken, pan-tossed and thickly coated along with quartered onions and capsicum, “the soy sauce will give you that rounded flavour and the ketchup will give you a nice acidic zing.”
“The American ketchup is quite flat. It’s sour and it doesn’t have that spicy note to it.”
Then, there is the Bombay sandwich. It is a veritable tower of sliced potatoes, cucumber, onions, beetroot and capsicum, all layered over a verdant chutney, sprinkled with chaat masala and then flattened in a searing hot press. There are usually three condiments smeared on the edge of the paper plate in which you are served your Bombay Sandwich: green chutney, red chutney and tomato ketchup. Often, a dollop of ketchup is added on top of the sandwich, as a finishing touch. Here, ketchup isn’t a chutney replacement, but rather, a chutney companion.
It’s not hard to see how street food has absorbed ketchup into its realm. Tomato sauce is a natural extension of its kaddu-based predecessor, going well with sandwiches, on top of bhel puri or a plate of steamed momos. Though Mumbai’s sandwich culture predates the ketchup generation, the paper menus of the city’s sandwichwallas feel like a reflection of it, with options like chilli samosa grilled sandwiches and pizza sandwiches with mushroom and corn.
In 2001, almost three decades after sandwichwallas started cropping up in Bombay’s business districts, a storied sandwich chain from America landed in India’s metro cities: Subway. And in the Subway sandwich, the sauce is not a mere dip; it is often the showpiece. From barbecue to tandoori mayo to sweet onion, the choice of sauces is essential to the Subway experience.
“Every time people would go to a Subway, they would ask for a maximum of sauces to be put into their subs,” said Anju C. Srivastava, founder and CEO of Wingreens Farms. Srivastava and her husband Arjun founded Wingreens in 2008, beginning with 12 sauces. The idea was to provide customers with a range of sauce flavours they could cook with and dip into. “We curated packaging that gave them an accessible price and enough quantity for when they were making their sandwiches,” Anju said, “They could have an entire medley of sauces.”
From 2010 onwards, grocery store shelves have filled up with new entrants to the table sauce category. Names like Gourmet Jar, Sprig and Veeba sit alongside older heavyweights Mother’s Recipe and Del Monte, each occupying price points from ₹349 for a 120-gram bottle of Bhut Jolokia hot sauce to ₹175 for more than double that quantity of peri peri sauce. These new players have begun producing as many variants as possible, expanding far beyond ketchup into dips and spreads. According to an August 2021 report on Moneycontrol.com, ketchup still commands 60 percent of this ₹3,500 crore market which is expected to double in the next four years.
It’s easy to say that a ketchup is a ketchup is a ketchup. But if you take six different ketchups, you will find that there is a taste difference,” Gidwani Verma told me. I understood the sentiment. Tangy, sweet and spicy aren’t dispassionate descriptors, but ones that have the ability to heighten, flatten, excite and soothe all in one go. But I felt I needed to go deeper into ketchup obsession. I needed to find what made it singular. I needed to put ketchup on top of upma.
I waited for my bowl of rava upma to cool slightly before reaching for my two mini bottles of tomato sauce. I had a sweet and spicy variety and a no onion-no garlic variant that I had mistakenly picked up.
The sweet and spicy one had to go first. The runny sauce quickly coated the upma, and its overwhelming flavour camouflaged the upma’s own taste.
I reached for the next bottle. The no onion-no garlic ketchup came out far slower, forming a near-perfect blob on the spoon. That’s about where perfection ended, though. The rich sauce was immediately at odds with the mildly spiced upma. I recoiled at the dissonance, tears in my eyes and queasiness to go with it. Yet with each spoon, something became clearer: Indian ketchup was a star, an actor unconvinced by supporting roles, a heat-seeking missile that wouldn’t stop until every ounce of punch and pizazz was brought to a scene.
But somehow, all the ketchup in the world could not make me finish that bowl of upma.
Nikhita Venugopal is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore who has written for publications such as The Washington Post, The Ringer, Whetstone, The News Minute, Eater, and more.