Sour Fruit To Staple, Tomato's Journey And How It Came To India

At the moment, tomatoes seem to be worth their weight in gold with people shelling out lakhs and hiring armed guards to protect their stash as prices rise all over India. Thanks to unseasonal weather and widespread crop destruction earlier this year, people are struggling to find alternatives to the kitchen staple. But there was a time when the tomato was absolutely unknown to Indian cuisine, and you may be surprised to know that it wasn’t all that long ago. 

Though the Indian relationship with tomatoes began only about 400 years ago, the tomato as a crop dates back thousands of years, originating in the region that is now modern-day Mexico and parts of Central America. The wild ancestors of tomatoes were small, berry-like fruits that grow on vines and were consumed by indigenous peoples in the area. The earliest evidence of tomato cultivation and domestication can be traced to ancient Mesoamerican civilisations such as the Aztecs and Mayans, who valued the tomato as both a food source and for its medicinal properties.

Fast forward to the late 15th century when Christopher Columbus set sail in search of a different route to India, but stumbled upon the bountiful shores of the Americas instead. Among the many treasures he encountered were tomatoes. Fascinated by their exotic appearance and unique taste, Columbus eagerly brought them back to Europe. Tomatoes faced an uphill battle to gain acceptance in Europe. They were regarded as purely ornamental plants and used solely for decorative purposes. The poor tomato was labelled as the "poison apple" and blamed for various ailments, earning itself quite the infamous reputation. 

Enter the daring Spanish conquistadors, who were not ones to shy away from culinary experiments. They adopted the tomato enthusiastically and incorporated it into their Mediterranean cuisine. Soon, the tomato had won the hearts (and taste buds) of the Spanish, who shared their newfound love affair with the rest of Europe. From Spain, the tomato slowly made its way to Italy, where it effortlessly integrated into beloved dishes like pasta and pizza.

But how did this juicy red traveller find its way to the aromatic land of India? Well, it was thanks to the Portuguese traders who sailed across the vast oceans, seeking spices and treasures. Along with their ships laden with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, they carried the tomato seeds to the shores of Goa. But the tomatoes that arrived with the Portuguese looked very different from what we know today as a tomato. These fruits weren’t round, they were longer and very sour.

As a result, they were used as more of a souring agent than a fully-fledged vegetable, and even today, you rarely see India using the tomato at the centre of the dish rather than as a flavouring or condiment. Over time tomatoes became naturalised and today India produces 7500+ varieties which range in shape and flavour and found their way into many daily dishes but are still not the star of the show.

Today, tomatoes are widely cultivated in India, with the country being one of the world's largest producers. They are grown in various regions, from the fertile plains of Punjab to the hills of Himachal Pradesh and the coastal areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Tomatoes are not only consumed fresh but are also processed into products such as purees, ketchup, and canned tomatoes, which are used in both domestic and international markets.

The journey of tomatoes from their humble origins in Mesoamerica to India exemplifies the exchange of plants, cultures, and flavours that have occurred throughout history. This small fruit has become an indispensable ingredient in Indian cuisine, adding its unique taste and vibrant colour to countless dishes and enriching the culinary heritage of the country.