The first evidence that we have of people growing tomatoes for consumption is in the Aztec civilisation, who used tomatoes in their cooking. It took around 2,000 years for Europeans to discover the tomato, when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés brought over a small yellow fruit after he had captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
(Historic aside: An Aztec festival was taking place when the Spanish approached, and this was misinterpreted as an act of war, so they besieged the city for 90 days and left the people in there to starve. That classic European Middle Ages trilogy: ignorance, violence and pillaging. Yikes).
Anyway, back to tomatoes! The Spanish began distributing tomatoes all over the world, spreading as far as China before the end of the 16th century. In Italy, they showed their love for this fruit right from the off, by recording the exact date that a tomato was first seen (31 October 1548) – but they were originally used as an ornamental flower. The country would make up for this over the centuries, including tomatoes in every conceivable dish!
Interestingly though, Italy just scrapes into the top ten countries ranked in terms of tomato consumption. Care to guess who is, overwhelmingly, at the top? We’ll reveal the answer later in the blog.
The popularity of tomatoes all comes down to three main reasons: first of all, they are incredibly versatile, secondly they are delicious, and finally they are really good for you in a number of ways. Let’s now take a look at each reason in a bit more detail.
Tomatoes are incredibly versatile. Not just in the way we eat them, but also where they can be grown plus how they can be stored, prepared and sold. Every country in the world eats tomatoes, and for most of us, they represent a major part of our cuisine.
In China, they are used in salads, soups and noodle dishes. In India, tomatoes are often used in the sauce for curries. In Italy, it’s pasta dishes and pizza (duh.). In the Middle East they are in salads, grilled with kebabs, or added to stews. In South America, salsa. Eastern Europe, goulash or gołąbki. For Western Europe, it’s gazpacho, ratatouille, paella. You get the idea. Everyone eats tomatoes!
There is some science behind why tomatoes are so delicious. The balance between acid and sweetness from the natural sugars, plus the natural oils and volatile compounds which are released when we bite into a tomato, all combine to create a reaction in our mouths that most of us find incredibly pleasing.
Of course, not all tomatoes are created equal, but the fact that they can be a little bit sweet at the same time as being a little bit bitter, as well as being juicy and refreshing, means that we just can’t get enough!
The Japanese word ‘Umami’, which is literally translated as “essence of deliciousness”, is used to describe the ‘fifth’ flavour after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Tomatoes are basically the poster boys for umami.
There are so many, let’s take a look at some of the big ones:
To answer our question from earlier, it’s China that tops the world for tomato consumption, which is probably not a huge surprise given their huge population. More interestingly, India, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Uzbekistan are all ahead of Italy – tomatoes play a crucial role in the cuisine of the Middle East.
As you’ve seen, the one of the best things about the tomato is just how versatile it is – you don’t need to try too hard to add tomatoes into your diet. You can take inspiration from all over the world!
Having a salad or a sandwich? Add in some tomatoes. Same with scrambled eggs for breakfast, or a pasta dish, or an omelette, or a stir fry, or a curry, or a rice dish. You get the idea.
Our favourite way to eat tomatoes? In a delicious, hearty tomato soup – like our Killer Tomato soup. With red pepper, basil and garlic it’s salty, sweet, tangy and moreish all at once – that umami thing again!
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