Among the many food items that I bring back from abroad in my luggage are tomatoes. This nearly always provokes derision among my friends. “Caviar, we understand. Even truffles. Or maybe unusual spices and herbs from foreign countries,” they sneer. “But what kind of idiot brings back tomatoes?” And yes, I have to concede that it seems a little silly, especially as the tomatoes I buy are not some rare, little-found variety but are just normal vine-ripened tomatoes bought at some good supermarket like England’s Waitrose chain.
So, why do I struggle to keep my tomatoes fresh on the long journey? Why do I take care to see that they are not squished under the weight of the other stuff in my suitcase? Why do I bear the snide remarks of my friends? Well, the answer is the simplest one of all: because you can’t get good tomatoes in India.
Now that I’ve got your attention with that seemingly ridiculous assertion, let me try and give you a little historical background. As far as we know, the tomato was brought back from the New World (i.e. South America) by Christopher Columbus. Many of the fruits and vegetables that came from the New World (even the potato) were so rare and expensive that Europeans credited them with aphrodisiac powers. (Anything expensive is immediately regarded as an aphrodisiac by stupid people – to this day!) Some people argued that they were the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden and said that they were the fruit (a tomato is a fruit, by the way, not a vegetable, in strict botanical terms) served up by the serpent. The Italian name for tomatoes, pomodoro, translates literally as the ‘golden apple’ so the confusion may have been widespread throughout Europe in those days. (Apparently the Hungarians called it the Paradice Appfel or the ‘apple of paradise’).But why blame the poor tomato for the apple’s misdemeanours? Well, I guess it was because the apple looks like a well-behaved, celibate fruit. But the tomato, on the other hand, is a slutty, scarlet fruit, squishy in all the right places, oozing delicious juice, one taste of which is enough to cause an explosion in the mouth.
Whatever the reason, Europeans took to potatoes and other New World produce before they got around to tomatoes. For a century and a half after Columbus brought back the tomato, it remained a little-eaten fruit which was hardly ever mentioned in polite company. Only much later did Europeans realise that it had potential in the food department (even if it was a flop in the sex department) and start eating it. But even then, they treated it as a fruit rather than a vegetable. (In botanical terms, this is fair and proper, of course.)
Think about it. Vegetables are cooked and eaten at meals. Fruits are eaten raw, treated as desserts or are pureed to add flavour to other dishes. The tomato’s treatment in the West was very fruit-like. Nobody cooked it. When they did eat it, it was raw. And the Italians, who first took to it, used it as a puree for pasta and pizza. (If you look at it that way, a pizza is to a tomato what apple pie is to an apple.) When the tomato finally reached North America (i.e. the US) via Europe, it was subject to similar shock-horror responses till enterprising American companies popularised tomato ketchup. But even then, you will note, it was treated less as a vegetable and more as a condiment or a flavouring agent. Which brings us to the Indian experience. The Portuguese brought tomatoes to India but the Brits, their heads turned by all the European isconceptions, resisted them till they reluctantly agreed to let them be used for soup (which I guess did not count as actually eating the vegetable in their minds).
Nobody can say, with any degree of certainty, when tomatoes were introduced into the Indian diet but we do know two things. The first is that the tomatoes that the Portuguese brought to India were not round. They were long and shaped vaguely like baingans. And two, they were sour, much sourer than today’s tomatoes.
So, influenced perhaps by British attitudes to the tomato, Indian cooks started using it like a fresh spice. We used it primarily as a souring agent and then, as the tomatoes grown all over India became less sour, we used them to add colour and taste to our food. In nearly every dish where tomatoes have been used in early Indian cooking, their prime purpose has been to add a sour taste (think of Punjabi black dal or of Bengali cuisine where tomatoes were first widely used) and only now, do we find any other use for them in the kitchen.
But this is where our paths separated. The West soon realised that the raw tomato had potential. It became a popular salad vegetable and hundreds of breeds were cultivated, some for the purpose of sauce, some for salad, some for sun-drying (in Italy, especially). So the tomato, unlike the potato and many other New World vegetables, soon had two roles. It was used as a flavouring agent (in sauce, in ketchup etc.) and it was eaten raw.
In India however, the tomato remained a condiment. It is true that we Indians treat our vegetables with scant respect, cooking them till all the original flavour disappears and subjecting them to spice assaults, but the tomato has not even been granted the status of a proper vegetable. How many tomato sabzis have you come across? We rarely regard the tomato as being worth very much on its own.
When we use tomatoes, it is either as part of the cooking process or as a chutney or some other condiment. Every Indian kitchen will have tomatoes but few of us will pay them much attention. Even when we do sometimes place sliced raw tomatoes on the table, we include potent onion (which kills any delicate tomato flavours) and cucumber (for the bite). Really tasty tomatoes are rarely a priority in Indian homes.
If you don’t believe me, conduct an experiment. Go to your local subziwallah and buy some tomatoes. Cut them into slices, sprinkle some good (sea is best) salt over them and drizzle a little olive oil over the slices. I am willing to guarantee that the dish will taste like tomato-flavoured cardboard.
If you love tomatoes, as I do, then it is almost impossible to get flavourful fresh tomatoes in India. Oh yes, they are fine for cooking (if they lack flavour, you just increase the quantities) but that’s about it. The sweet-sour flavour tango which is the true test of a good tomato is rarely found in Indian tomatoes.
Slowly but surely, Indian chefs are coming round to this view. We laughed at Hemant Oberoi when he imported cherry tomatoes for his salad nearly two decades ago but he was right. Many expatriate chefs will now import their salad tomatoes (it is a nuisance but it is not that expensive) from Europe and some chefs have sourced flavourful tomatoes from small artisanal growers but these are not available to the general public. (At the Delhi Hyatt, owner Shiv Jatia grows his own tomatoes at a small farm outside the city.)
I used to complain about the Indian potato – too much sugar for frying – but fortunately, such companies as McCain have set up farms that produce world-class potatoes (which is why McCain’s fries, tikkis and hash browns are such a hit in the home cook market.)
But the tomato remains an exception. I am told that one reason is that the two main sources of demand are not quality-conscious. You don’t need great tomatoes for an Indian curry and food companies who use tomatoes (for baked beans and the like) buy tomato paste from industrial manufacturers. The restaurant and hotel sector only needs good tomatoes for salad (pizzas etc. are made with paste usually). So it is not comparable with the demand for French fries which was so massive that it became worthwhile for McCain to set up its own potato farm in Gujarat.
A small market does nevertheless need somebody to meet its requirements. Take organic eggs. Most Indian eggs are industrial and disgusting and sadly even our chefs do not know better. But a producer like Keggs Eggs has flourished by supplying those who can tell the difference between a free range egg with its golden yolk and firm white and a nasty industrial egg with its pale yolk and watery white.
My guess is that if some enterprising farmer began selling artisanal tomatoes (the sort of thing they do in California), he would find buyers even if his prices were slightly higher. (Nobody minds paying more for Keggs). I know such producers do exist. But if they would only identify themselves and market their tomatoes properly, we would finally get decent tomatoes in India. And my bags would not have to be full of little tomatoes still on their vines!