Ketchup and 6 Other Foods You Didn't Know Were Chinese

chinese food
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Chances are, you’re wearing something right now that was made in China (even if you have trouble spotting a bunk Chinese restaurant). But beyond sneakers and smartphones, the Chinese have a long history of creating amazing stuff. The ancient Chinese contributed paper, gunpowder, the umbrella, and the compass to civilization. And when it comes to food, China's impact extends far beyond tea and chopsticks. Here are some foods you probably didn't realize you have the Chinese to thank for.


No doubt the Japanese perfected the whole raw-fish-and-rice thing, but they got the idea from the Chinese. Long before Americans began worrying about fake sushi, people in Southeast Asia and Southern China started preserving fish by wrapping it in cooked rice, letting it ferment or pickle for up to a year before eating it. The resulting halitosis may have been one of the reasons the Chinese invented the toothbrush in 1498.

Flickr/Stefan van Bremen


It's been a matter of ongoing contention whether pasta originated in Italy, China, or the Middle East. But when archaeologists found a 4,000-year-old bowl of intact noodles in China, that became the oldest evidence we have of ancestral spaghetti. (It's unclear exactly when and how pasta reached Italy, but historians have debunked the myth that it was brought back from China by Marco Polo in the 13th century.) The archaeological noodles are made of millet which has a harder texture than wheat -- hard enough to survive for four millennia apparently.


The Chinese can lay claim to "ke-tsiap," the fermented fish sauce that gave rise to our beloved Heinz. The British brought ketchup to the West, where tomatoes became the base ingredient. Americans added vinegar and lots of sugar (of course). And then the Israelis turned around and created a ketchup-filled donut burger bun. Game over.


Unlike Flight of the Conchords, these furry little dudes are not from New Zealand at all. Kiwifruit are native to China (as are peaches, oranges, lychees, and rhubarb) and they were only introduced to New Zealand in 1904. They were actually called Chinese gooseberries until the Cold War, when exporters realized the name wasn't helping their marketing.

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Ice cream

Frozen treats are so universal that historians think different forms may have developed independently in different places. The ancient Persians and Romans were onto flavored ice early, but as far as we know it was the Chinese who first added dairy to the mix. During the Tang dynasty, proto-ice cream was made with buffalo, cow, or goat's milk thickened with flour and flavored with camphor. That's the same pungent stuff that's used in Vicks VapoRub, which must have made for an intensely refreshing dessert.


The earliest records of fermented soybean paste come from China, where it was (and still is) known as jiang. Food historians think that soy products like miso, soy sauce, and tofu came to Japan in the 6th or 7th century with the spread of Buddhism, as it was an important part of a vegetarian diet. Like sushi, the Japanese took it and ran with it, consuming more than 17lbs of miso per person in some years.  


The oldest alcohol ever unearthed was the residue of a 9,000-year-old fermented beverage in China. The neolithic wine/beer was made from rice, honey, and fruit, and in 2006 Dogfish Head released a Chateau Jiahu beer inspired by the recipe. Beer nerdom generally agreed that the brew was more interesting than tasty. One reviewer put it this way: "I'm sure I would have reached for this in a second 9,000 years ago." Buuurn.

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Sarah Theeboom is a freelance food, travel, and lifestyle writer. She’s partly made in Taiwan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.