I was well into my twenties before I realized I didn’t hate pasta sauce—I just needed to try a version that didn’t come from a jar. I can hardly fault my mother for this: both she and my father worked ten-to-twelve-hour days and some weekends. By the time she got home, there were at least five mouths to feed, and usually a few extras supplied by the endless array of neighbor kids, friends over for the evening, exchange students, and random long-term houseguests who consistently filled our house. (There was, I’ll admit, rarely a dull moment, outside of the menu.) Dried spaghetti and jarred sauce easily expanded dinner for five to dinner for fifteen.
But every once in a while my mother would go rogue, depart from Barilla and Prego, and concoct what, depending on the day and the ingredients, could be called “stir-fry,” “chow mein,” or “Thai noodles.” The starch and the vegetables might change—perhaps one had a little vinegar, another some fish sauce—but they all shared the same base sauce: ketchup and soy sauce.
My mother’s mother sauce was a way to use any starch and vegetables she had around, while making a meal that required only one pan and could feed three hungry kids on a minute’s notice. Later, I would recreate it to feed a dorm basement full of friends and one lonely traveler. Packaged noodles or rice, onions, garlic, and bell peppers would be the staples. If we’d been near an Asian market, my mother would incorporate bok choy and tofu, or if it were spring in Seattle, the local asparagus. The ingredients are inconsequential when it comes to creating a meal from the savory-sweet sludge that results from mixing ketchup, soy sauce, and some high-heat cooking. That’s why it’s often used as a shortcut for pad Thai by cheap or lazy restaurateurs, and why Jamie Oliver uses the combination in his barbecue sauce.
It’s been years since I’ve used the recipe—and judging from my mother’s reaction when I ask her about it, nearly as long for her. Now that she’s cooking for two, with a retiree’s schedule, she has as little interest in recreating the staples of that chaotic time as I do in my house with a well-stocked pantry. I try to think back to a pivotal moment, perhaps my mother sitting me down and telling me, “Ketchup and soy sauce might sound like how you make barbecue sauce solely from condiment packets left over from take-out restaurants, but actually they make a quick, easy dinner.” But I remember no such thing.
I email my mother, who is enjoying her retirement with a vacation on Kauai, and ask her if she knows where the idea came from. After briefly defending it (“Ketchup is a real ingredient, you know”—and I promise her I do), she gives me the hasty answers of someone who’s just been asked to dreg up a memory from a shameful moment in her past. She says perhaps it sounds like the chicken recipe—I know the one she means, since for most of my childhood I was unaware that “marinated chicken” might refer to a general type, rather than one specific recipe from the New York Times Cookbook.
I have her copy of the 1979 edition of the book and look up the recipe. (Her bookshelves are now a curated wonderland of Naomi Duguid, Nigel Slater, and Yotam Ottolenghi—there’s no room left for poor Craig Claiborne). It opens quickly to “Oven-Baked Chicken Wings with Honey,” in part because the drip-stained page seems to be bookmarked by an ancient, dried-up onion skin. Sure enough, the wings involve only seven other ingredients, and two of them are ketchup and soy sauce. After a quick dip in the marinade and a long, slow roast, the honey and ketchup nearly candy the wings, their sweetness cut only with the salt of the soy sauce. The garlic melts into the sauce, and they bake up sticky, emerging from the oven amid a torrent of bubbling sauce. A sauce which is gold: one evening, the chicken and the rice long gone, my little brother was admonished for licking the sauce directly from the plate. At a loss for how else to get more sauce, he began dipping—and eating—his paper napkin. (I like to think this anecdote says more about the sauce than my family’s table manners, but interpret it as you will.)
I was eighteen when I first backpacked around Europe, and quickly learned that the money I’d saved working at the Gap through high school was not going to get me very far when I was spending in pounds—and mostly on pints. Luckily, oil, soy sauce, and ketchup are a few staples that nearly every hostel kitchen has in spades. They last forever, and they’re bottled, so there’s no playing the “How long has it been there?” game. With a quick stop at the local market for whatever vegetables were cheap, I opened a world of extra money to be spent on space cakes in Amsterdam a few weeks later.
A few short months later, I cooked a homemade feast for my freshman floor in college, using the same recipe. It wasn’t quite like what anybody’s mother made—other than mine, of course—but it was a homemade meal after we’d survived our first month of dining-hall food, and it definitely made our dorm basement smell better than it had since we’d arrived.
These days, as a grown-up who’s made a career writing about food far from hostel kitchens, dorm basements, and dining halls, I’m eating delicacies in Beijing and Singapore. Sure, Chinese sticky spareribs and char kway teow have a nuance and finesse that my mother’s sauce never did, but the same building blocks come together: that acidity, the saltiness of the soy sauce, and—the crowning touch—the caramelizing of the sugars in the ketchup give it that crisp sweetness that belongs in every stir-fry, not to mention the umami blast from combining two foods (soy sauce and tomatoes) with so much naturally occurring MSG.
I doubt my mom even has ketchup at her house these days; it probably got tossed to make room for the pomegranate molasses needed to cook a recipe from Plenty More. And while I appreciate the eggplant in yogurt sauce I get when I go for dinner, I’m happy to be armed with a cooking Swiss Army Knife that is the combination of ketchup and soy sauce. My mother may not have taught me the secret to putting together a seven-course feast, nor how to make any work-intensive specialties of our culture. (Her great contribution to my food-heritage education was teaching me, over the phone, to make matzo balls: “Follow the recipe on the back of the matzo-meal box. It’s very good.”) But she did teach me how to feed many people, quickly and affordably, and offer me a first peek into the basics of balancing flavors.