The ketchup chronicles.

I understand that most people would find ketchup a pretty weird subject to write on. Ketchup, the bane of chefs all over the world. Ask for ketchup at a pizzeria in Italy and you risk getting thrown out, maybe I’m exaggerating, but at the very least, you risk getting a really nasty look from the chef.

The problem with ketchup is that it’s often thought of as a masking agent. A panacea for all tasteless fare. It really isn’t. Let me tell you about how my relationship with ketchup has evolved over the years.

As a kid in small town India, ketchup was synonymous with the locally available ‘Kissan’ ketchup. It was India’s answer to Heinz. Same color, same consistency and came in a distinctive glass bottle which needed a good whack or two before dollops of the crimson goop splattered your plate. The taste was timeless. It went perfectly with traditional Indian snacks like samosas, replacing the tamarind or coriander chutneys which found pride of place in old Indian homes. The western revolution had begun on the dining table.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of India’s early globalization years. So, then came Maggi. Ads on TV played often, showing the new Maggi ketchup being ladled on beautifully crafted burgers, pizzas, samosas, french fries and I even remember an ad where a kid just licked ketchup off his plate. But, Maggi never entered our house. We are a family which does not take kindly to change. There was never any need felt to replace the old faithful Kissan.

Then came the boarding school years. Maggi, in a stroke of unparalleled genius launched a new ‘Hot and Sweet’ tomato-chilly sauce. Launched with much fanfare starring a ‘then’ popular tv star called Javed Jaffrey, their tagline was “It’s different”. What I believe they tried to do was to bring in the slightly old Indians who stayed away from ketchup, deeming it too sweet. We Indians do like a bit of a kick in our food.

I first tried ‘Hot and Sweet’ in my boarding school. And not in the conventional way. Every wednesday, saturday and sunday, my school served it’s version of Pulao. Pulao is a fragrant Indian rice preparation with peas, carrots and french beans. My school’s pulao on the other hand was brown in color with scattered peppercorns and cloves, devoid of any veggies. They served it with a watery, insipid version of mutton rogan josh. A friend of mine suggested we add a little bit of the ‘hot and sweet’ to rice, suspicious at first, I followed. The result was magic. My mouth burst alive, my palate was tingling. It was sensational. Thereafter I cannot recall ever eating that stupid pulao without a generous helping of the magic sauce. (Don’t judge me. I was 9. And hungry).

Maggi subsequently launched plenty more versions, there was an onion and garlic one, a tamarind one and a chilly garlic one. But none came close to the original. So when I think of Maggi ketchups, I don’t think of it as just another product. It changed my life (and my waistline), at a time in my life when I was young, homesick and hungry for a palatable meal. It was a friend in a bottle.

As time passed, Heinz came to India, it was the same as Kissan to me. Pretty ‘meh’. When we go eating at fancy places now, the chef usually has his own homemade version. So I make do with that.

But at home, nothing replaces ‘Hot and Sweet’, the bright red sauce with small crimson specks, flowing effortlessly out of the bottle (no whacking required). I still get pretty upset if it’s the bottle’s empty and hasn’t been replaced. Eaten with a grilled cheese sandwich, trust me, nothing comes close, pretty indescribable. Maybe that’s why Maggi came up with the ‘It’s different’ tagline. Because, well, it is.

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