“We’re making ketchup today,” Shushana (my host mother) announced as I peered into each sack, knowing that I’d be up for what looked to be a daunting but exciting challenge. She must have bought every red pepper the corner market had.
Store-bought ketchup is available and quite popular in Georgia, but it cannot compare in flavor to what Shushana and I were actually about to make: a traditional Georgian condiment known as satsebela.
We cleaned out both sides of the kitchen sink so I could wash bell peppers (six kilos–over 13 pounds–worth!) in one basin and pile them in the other. (Bell peppers here tend to have thinner skins and weigh less than those you find in American supermarkets, so it takes even more of them to reach a given weight.) Then Shushana had me remove their seedy cores by pushing down and twisting each stem until it broke away from the rest of the pepper, taking the core with it.
After rinsing six kilos of tomatoes and two more of spicy peppers that resemble spindly scarlet fingers, we formed a two-person assembly line. Shushana chopped the vegetables into manageable pieces as fast as I could feed them into her electric meat grinder, which pureed them to a chunky vermilion soup. A kilo of onions and six heads of garlic met the same fate.
When the largest pot (more of an industrial-size cauldron) she owns was full, we set the mixture on the stove to boil for an hour or so, concentrating the flavors and allowing some of the excess liquid to evaporate. After it had cooled slightly, we ran it in batches through the blender to break up the remaining chunks and then pressed it through a fine-mesh sieve to separate the pepper seeds and other solid matter from the liquid sauce. Instead of throwing these “discards” into the garbage, Shushana reserved them for making a future kettle of borshch.
The liquid we returned to the stove, adding red wine vinegar, whole cloves, lots of sugar, and salt to taste. Once the sauce returned to a low boil, Shushana added a little corn starch as a thickener, though I’m not sure it needed it.
Half an hour later, we stood at the stove over 11 liters of the most tantalizing “ketchup” I’ve ever tasted. Tart, sweet, and refreshingly piquant, it was the kind of ketchup you want to eat straight up, with a spoon. I managed to restrain myself and waited for the fried potatoes Shushana prepared then and there (around 11 p.m.). Of course, the potato served more as a vehicle for the sauce than the other way around. Like ketchup, satsebela is also served with grilled meats and kebabs. We’ll have to eat a whole lot of them this fall in order to get through all this ketchup before it spoils. That is, if I don’t start drinking it like a smoothie….
Sidenote: In case you were curious, the most basic bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup (care of heinzketchup.com) contains:
TOMATO CONCENTRATE FROM RED RIPE TOMATOES, DISTILLED VINEGAR, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, CORN SYRUP, SALT, SPICE, ONION POWDER, NATURAL FLAVORING