DALLAS — Jeff VanElverdinghe’s engineering career took him all over the world, where he experienced varieties of local cuisine.
“Every place I’ve gone, there’s been something there that I absolutely loved, and when I come home I can’t have it anymore,” VanElverdinghe said.
When choosing your “unketchup,” VanElverdinghe suggests the following pairings:
Apple — pork and chicken sausages.
Banana — spicy chicken.
Blueberry — smoked foods, such as salmon, duck and cheese.
Cranberry — turkey or mild chicken.
Plum and sweet cherry — pork.
About 17 years ago, he put the scientific method to use on something other than engineering to cure that disappointment.
“I also love to cook, so I figured out how to make things from all around the world,” he said.
His first recipe was for a banana ketchup — or “unketchup” as VanElverdinghe calls it to avoid running afoul of a federal law that prohibits products containing no tomatoes from being called ketchup.
He wasn’t selling commercially, but did test recipes on friends, giving them samples that they would share.
“Their friends would say ‘Hey, this great. Can I buy it?’ They would say ‘You can’t. It’s unobtainium.’”
The joke, a play on a word used to describe something that’s non-existent or nearly impossible to acquire, gave VanElverdinghe’s eventual business its name. Now he’s a full-season vendor at Dallas’ Polk County Bounty Market and Salem’s Saturday Market.
Unobtainium sells a collection of “unketchups” and fruit syrups and fruit “shrubs,” that VanElverdinghe developed using a precise method to capture just the right flavors.
“What I try to do is hijack your taste buds,” he said. “I love doing it.”
He does that with rare fruit varieties or unexpected flavor mixings, such as quince, apple-lavender and black pepper-black cardamom.
The syrups are fruity, naturally sweet and made with herbs and spices to accent the fruit flavor. They are versatile, good for mixed drinks, sodas or as a glaze.
To make a soda, VanElverdinghe mixes the syrups with lime seltzer.
“The reason that I do that is the lime does the same to your mouth as alcohol does in a mixed drink,” he said. “It brightens your palette, it makes it more accepting to flavors.”
Shrubs — a product VanElverdinghe describes as the “sports drink of the 1800s” — can be enjoyed the same way or with clear alcohol, such as vodka or gin.
“What I’ve tried to do is make so you get the taste of fruit right up front, followed by flavors that spread out across your tongue and lights up all your taste buds,” he said.
“Unketchups” come in flavors such as apple, banana, blueberry, plum and pumpkin.
“Any of the unketchups are an all-purpose sauce. You can use them to baste, glaze and marinade,” VanElverdinghe said. “They all go good with fried food, like spring rolls and eggs rolls, and pan fried noodles, stir fried veggies and roasted root vegetables.”
He said if you are feeling creative, you can use them on desserts, as well.
VanElverdinghe, who makes all his products in a commissary kitchen in Portland, tries to put out a new product each month. His next is a pineapple unketchup that he said pairs wonderfully with salmon.
In addition to farmers markets, VanElverdinghe sells to food service, including West Valley Taphouse for use on their menu items and retail outlets in the Portland and Salem areas.
At one place in Salem, Scuba & Travel, Inc., he’s trying to alleviate other travelers of feeling the same culinary letdown he had when returning from overseas.
“That sounds funny, but when people go out on dive trips, they run into things like banana ketchup,” he said.
For more information: unketchup.com.