The price or rather the sudden rise in the prices of Tomato is a subject of discussion both in the society and the social media. As nobody seems to be able to do anything about the price rise the people have no option but to adjust them to it. And as usual, make and circulate jokes about it. Some of these jokes are quite funny and sarcastic. But all in all, as seen from the laments of the middle class and the poorer alike, it can be assumed that the dear Tomato has proved itself to be the ubiquitous vegetable in our households after Potato, Onion and Chillies , in that order. Strangely and to the delight of many (Thank God for small mercies) the prices of Potato and Onions are quite stable and affordable. Otherwise it would be a real cause of worry for the powers to be , by heralding the long awaited revolution.
A very interesting social angle to the whole issue is the gradual acceptance and the obligatory presence of Tomato as a must have in the vegetable basket of the Indian housewife. Tomato is no doubt a versatile vegetable which can be used as accompaniment in soups and salads. But the most common use of Tomatoes in Indian kitchen nowadays is for imparting flavour and juice to the curries. The sweet and sour taste of Tomato by itself blends perfectly with the hot and spicy style of cooking by the average Indian. Therefore it is no wonder that it has placed itself at a position of high importance both as a vegetable and a spice additive. Bengalis use it to cook their Maachher Jhol, South Indians use it a lot for Rasam, Punjabis use it for Butter Chicken and City dwellers can’t do without the Tomato Ketchup in, well almost everything.
But it was not like this even half a century back. Tomato was not such a key element of Indian cooking. I distinctly remember my relatives from village referring to Tomatoes as “Bilaati Begun” (Bilayati baingan). The concept of adding Tomato to curries or “Sabzis” was almost nonexistent earlier. Maybe it started after the 60s or 70s and caught up the fancy with more production of it by the farmers after the Green revolution and better seeds, manure and storage facilities.
Whatever it may be, the addition of Tomato with our food and by association with our culture is recent by the standards of time and history. In fact Tomato was never a vegetable grown, cultivated or seen in the twin continents of Asia and Europe. It is a fruit of the “New World” and came with the discovery of the Americas, just like so many other things. If you consider the fact that Columbus discovered America in 1492 then the introduction of Tomato to the Europeans itself is an event which is just about five hundred years old, historically. This means that Babur was establishing the Mughal Empire at the time when Spanish conquistadores were getting to know about this berry like fruit in the jungles of Mexico.
The Spanish in fact, even have a festival called La Tomatina , where participants throw tomatoes and get involved in this tomato fight purely for entertainment purposes. Of course the festival started in 1945. The English word 'tomato' derives from the word 'tomati' its name in Nahuati, the language of the Aztec people. The English form 'tomate' first appeared in the 17th century, and was later modified to 'tomato', probably under the influence of the more familiar “potato”. Tomatoes were originally grown in Britain and the rest of Europe as ornamental climbers and were cultivated for their decorative leaves and fruit. The French, as usual were convinced that tomatoes had powerful aphrodisiac qualities and called them pommes d'amour (love apples). trust these frenchies to add the amorous angle to everything.
Soon after the tomato's arrival in Europe, it was also known as the Peruvian apple. The first cultivated tomatoes were yellow and cherry-sized, earning them the name golden apples. They were considered poisonous but appreciated for their beauty. Tomato proved itself to be adaptable to all climates and with the production of sheet glass, could be cultivated in colder climates too in greenhouses. Presently the variety of this vegetable that we find in markets is fully hybrid and genetically modified to make it available for mass production and longevity after ripening.
It may be interesting for trivia buffs to note that though Tomato is actually a fruit grown on a shrub, it is treated like a vegetable. The question whether Tomato is a fruit or a vegetable became a subject of legal wrangle and in 1883, the Supreme Court of USA passed a verdict classifying it as a vegetable.
The arrival of Tomato to India must have taken quite some time after this. Most probably it came with the Portuguese (or maybe other Europeans). But it remained somewhat exotic and belonged to the “Sahib” culture. There is not much description of this fruit or vegetable (whatever you call it) in the old Bengali novels, poems or plays. Even the old style Awadhi or Hyderabadi cuisines do not have any mention of it. In fact some chefs of traditional Indians food would scoff at the thought of having this item as the ingredient of this item. However, the fact is no Indian food preparations served in restaurants nowadays would be complete without this vegetable.
Since this fruit is not a native to our country, old texts and ayurvedic, Unani or Hekimi style of diet as prescribed by the old school also does not include it in their guidance. So it is a wonder how Tomato has become such an important part of the lives. Often we hear some group or the other deciding on what we should eat but till now none have published their edict in this regard. We have accepted and embraced Tomato in our life just as we have become accustomed to wearing trousers instead of Dhoti or Pajama. It has become another example of globalisation of taste, out of choice and convenience. And now, its absence in our vegetable basket worries us, so much, as if it has been a traditional item of living.
After reading up to this, dear reader, you must be having an urge to through tomatoes at me. But wait, that will prove a costly error at this price.