“Banana ketchup was always there,” says Paolo Campbell. The chef grew up eating it with chicken and as the basis of sweet Filipino spaghetti sauce, and today he serves the condiment at the Chicken Supply, his Filipino fried chicken counter in Seattle.
Within the Filipino community worldwide, banana ketchup — typically made with bananas, sugar, vinegar, spices, and dye — reigns supreme over the tomato-based version. Ketchup, which was historically used for preservation, can be made of fruit, mushrooms, or even seafood, but the banana variety inspires unrivaled affection. The bright red bottles of Philippines-made Jufran and UFC are such recognizable staples that chef Jordy Navarra of Manila’s Toyo Eatery (named for soy sauce, another essential local ingredient) thinks Filipinos can take them for granted. “It’s become this base condiment,” he says. “In a Western kitchen, they would have chicken stock; for us, it would be banana ketchup and [the fermented seafood paste] bagoong and [the preserves known as] buro.”
But just as chefs insist on developing house-made tomato ketchups despite Heinz’s broad hold, cooks across the Philippines and the diaspora are taking liberties with the beloved sauce. Campbell describes his banana ketchup as “deeper” than the bottled stuff, since he uses roasted bananas to make it; brown sugar, turmeric, and jalapeno and guajillo chiles contribute to a “barbecue-esque” vibe. There’s a poeticism in the version from Toyo Eatery, which begins with bananas grown near Mount Pinatubo, which devastated local farmland with an eruption in 1991. The kitchen combines them with onion, garlic, bay leaves, and some tomatoes for color, before seasoning with vinegar made from the peels. Toyo even lists banana ketchup as the name of the dish on the menu, rather than tortang talong — an eggplant omelet that’s generally synonymous with the condiment — that comes alongside.
Banana ketchup is a vehicle for constant reinvention, but these new takes on the condiment aren’t just riffs for riffing’s sake. They’re part of a long tradition of adaptation that runs from culinary invention under colonization all the way to modern reconceptions of Filipino cuisine.
A rich native landscape forms the foundation of Filipino food, but also inseparable is the inclusion and the imposition of outside influences like Spanish colonization, American empire building, and trade with China, Malaysia, and Mexico. After the United States took control of the Philippines in 1898, it adopted a mission to “civilize” and educate the Filipino population. Food played a crucial role in these efforts; Americans’ fears about the native diet led them to import their own food products, so many Filipinos developed a taste for things like Spam and, yes, ketchup.
In the decades following its introduction, the high price of imports of both tomato ketchup and the tomatoes needed to make it, along with the Philippines’ growing reliance on foreign goods, inspired food scientist Maria Orosa to develop a local alternative. Banana ketchup was just one of her inventions, some of which established her as a war hero during World War II. Orosa saw “the vast potential of a great many products endemic to the island nation that, when used properly, could make the country more self-sufficient,” Amelia Rampe writes in Food52.
Even today, the abundance of bananas in the Philippines makes them more suitable for condiments than the tomato, explains Navarra. Locally grown Philippine tomatoes lean tart and crunchy, he says; they’re better for a sour soup than a sweet condiment. Although imported tomatoes are available, the cost can be prohibitive, especially on a large scale: An imported tomato might run around 60 to 100 pesos (about $1-2), when one grown locally costs a fraction of that.
At the heart of Philippine cuisine is indigenization, according to the late scholar Doreen Gamboa Fernandez. “The process seems to start with a foreign dish in its original form, brought in by foreigners (Chinese traders, Spanish missionaries). It is then taught to a native cook, who naturally adapts it to the tastes he knows and the ingredients he can get, thus both borrowing and adapting,” she wrote. “Eventually, he improvises on it, thus creating a new dish that in time becomes so entrenched in the native cuisine and lifestyle that its origins are practically forgotten.” What is foreign becomes Filipino, and such is the case with ketchup.
As educators like Aileen Suzara have helped elucidate, imported processed American foods were initially framed as more healthful than the Filipino diet. As it has become clear that these processed ingredients are associated with negative health outcomes, consumers are finding their way back to a more traditional, nutritionally rich Filipino diet.
Filipino American pantry brand Fila Manila forgoes artificial colors and flavors in its banana ketchup, and puts a greater emphasis on quality ingredients and health. “Our vision is to represent the next generation of Filipino American flavors,” says founder Jake Deleon. Developed with chef Harold Villarosa, the rich-hued Fila Manila banana ketchup includes a bit of bell pepper and uses less sugar than other banana ketchups (about 1 gram per serving compared with 8).
“The banana ketchup that we make passes the rigor of a Whole Foods-quality standard,” Deleon says; the grocery chain boasts a list of 230-plus banned ingredients, including the red and yellow dyes in Jufran’s banana ketchup. Qualifying for placement on Whole Foods shelves was critical to another of Deleon’s goals with Fila Manila: representation of Filipino ingredients outside of Asian grocery stores. The company’s product can be found at Sprouts and Target as well.
In Quezon City, Philippines, the restaurant Hapag makes its banana ketchup with fermented bananas, tomato paste for color, caramelized onions for sweetness, and local vinegar — either tuba, made from coconuts, or sukang iloko, made from sugar cane — for balance. It appears on the menu with a small, tostada-like take on the empanadas of Ilocos Norte, a province in the northernmost region of the Philippines.
Banana ketchup is part of Hapag’s well-developed fermentation program, which brings foreign influences from Japan (koji) and Denmark’s Noma (garums) together with existing elements of Filipino cuisine (fish sauce, vinegar). That approach speaks to Hapag’s bigger-picture perspective. “It’s progressive Filipino food,” says chef and co-owner Kevin Navoa. “We try to not really have the idea of having ‘old’ or ‘new’ Filipino.” The goal is not to replace what exists but to bring pride to what’s there and push it further.
Even as banana ketchup shape-shifts, it’s a reminder of how Filipinos have created something delicious and distinctly ours from the circumstances of colonization and cultural suppression. With each new version comes the reminder that all foods change, and even those foods that we accept as our own can be reimagined to feel more personal.
At first, Campbell wasn’t planning to put banana ketchup on Chicken Supply’s menu at all because he wasn’t sure diners would be adventurous enough to try it. But at the suggestion of his business partner Donnie Adams, Campbell decided to give it a shot. “I thought I was going to make a batch or two all month,” he says. “Obviously, that came and bit me in the ass pretty hard.” A year into business, the small, takeout-only counter now goes through so much banana ketchup that it requires two or three batches a week, with 10 pounds of bananas in each batch.
“I just am really pumped that people like the banana ketchup,” Campbell says. “To be honest, that’s probably the biggest surprise to me of this whole thing.”