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Ketchup vs Mayonnaise: How Condiments Illustrate Culture

September 29, 2009

On pretty much any table in any restaurant in the U.S. you will find a bottle of ketchup.

With pretty much any order of fries, hotdogs, chicken, or milanesa (breaded fried chicken or steak) in Argentina you will find a serving of mayonnaise.

Why the difference?

One clear and distinct answer lies in the history and invention of these two sauces. The invention of modern ketchup is credited by some to H.J. Heinz, the founder of The Heinz company. His adaptation of the Chinese “cat-sup” (still seen written this way on some company’s bottles) made its way to market in the late 1800s, originating in Pennsylvania, which explains why it penetrated the market so much in the U.S. It didn’t arrive to Europe or South America until much later.

Mayonnaise on the other hand, was invented much earlier, and indeed by the French Duke de Richelieu in, uh, France around 1756. This gap of 150 years or so with mayo and without ketchup in Europe is probably the reason for the majority of why American’s prefer and use ketchup over mayo and vice versa in Argentina, South America and Europe.

Now the hard data was really hard to come by, but I think that there is another reason for the respective preferences for ketchup vs. mayo in different regions: the palate.

Ketchup is basically sugar. With 2 of the first 3 ingredients in ketchup being high fructose corn syrup and sugar, Ketchup fits America’s need for sweet products, sweet/savory combinations. Ketchup has no fat in it and is basically entirely sugar. This produces a drastically different hormonal effect in the body when consumed (sugar high, followed by huge insulin spike, followed by lethargy).

Mayo is essentially entirely fat with the main components being egg yolk and different oils (depending on the recipe). Strangely, mayo takes on different colors in America vs. Argentina. In the U.S. mayo is starkly white. This strikes me as odd for a food that is based on the yellow egg yolk because in Argentina, it is much more yellow.

The 100% fat content of mayo satiates the appetite and gives people a full feeling. This hormonal effect of satiation is much different than the roller coaster sugar high effect of ketchup.

Not to mention that the flavor of mayo is not sweet at all. It is entirely savory, another thing that illustrates the two countries’ preferences for sugar vs. fat, sugar high vs fat satiation, ketchup vs mayonnaise.

The odd thing about the practice of serving the two condiments is that ketchup in the U.S. is omnipresent. It’s on every table in every restaurant. ANYTIME fries are served, ketchup is there, even in high end establishments. Mayo would be odd in that circumstance. I invoke here, the movie Pulp Fiction where the John Travolta character, at the beginning of the movie has just returned from Europe and tells the Samuel L. Jackson character about how they “drown [their fries] in that shit (mayo)”, and they both remark about how strange they find that custom.

In Argentina, fries are served without anything and I have always had to ask for ketchup, and since I view fries basically as a ketchup transportation system, I have been frustrated when restaurants do not have ketchup. What a nightmare.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2009 9:16 pm

    Love the historical explanation–thanks for tackling this critical issue for those of us who have to carry our own little packets of McDonald’s ketchup to the local cafe when ordering fries.

    The sugar vs. fat cultural hypothesis strikes me as less convincing than the historical one. I am amazed at the amount of sugar people eat here in Argentina…fat too of course, and yet what about all that sugar stuff served around 6 pm? the two desserts after the Sunday asado? the huge “mesas de dulces” at weddings–in addition to the wedding cake. Plus most chocolate here is a sweet milky chocolate, not dark chocolate.

    I think in time ketchup will be big here…after all, the popular Argentine condiment “salsa golf” is basically half ketchup-half mayonnaise. (By the way, the restaurants I frequented in the US do not have ketchup on the table…just the “family” and “fast food” restaurants.)

  2. September 30, 2009 9:30 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Gayle!

    I think I misconstrued my point about the national palate of Argentina not wanting sweet food. This was NOT my point. You are right, Argentines eat as many desserts as Americans. My point was that sweet FLAVORS are not at all incorporated into Argentine savory foods and that this also illustrates a preference for mayo (savory) over kethcup (sweet/savory mix).

    Nearly all the Argentines I’ve ever interacted with (including my wife) scoff at what they call “comidas agridulces” or foods that have sweet savory combinations. These would include fruits or dried fruits in green salads, barbecue sauces, lots of Asian sweet/sour dishes, Hawaiian pizza, etc., which are all food that are more than abundant in the U.S.

    Just to reiterate: Americans and the American palate tends to choose sweet foods at all times for appetizers, mains and desserts where Argentines tend to compartmentalize more. Ketchup, having a sweet tang to it, would then “contaminate” (yes, my wife has used the word “contaminar”) fries where mayo does not. In a relationship, one must learn to agree to disagree. Sobre gusto, no hay nada escrito.

  3. October 23, 2009 2:09 pm

    just found this blog today – very interesting insights! i just arrived in cordoba on sunday for a month or two of volunteer work so this blog is a good resource for me. i have a question that i’m hoping you can answer – when bars put out a little plate of peanuts with your drinks, what do they call that here? someone told me they have another word for it, not just cacahuettas. any idea?

    looking forward to more from your blog!

    • October 23, 2009 2:27 pm

      Thanks for your comment Melissa! You have given me another topic to blog-on. Check out my next entry

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