The tomato

Once considered poisonous, it was not eaten. But from the minute it made its way into the kitchen, it has become an indispensable food item with the ability to transform cultures.

Owing either to their costliness or to transportation difficulties, the foodstuffs that came over the Silk Road impelled man to explore new tastes and new continents across the sea. The discovery of the New World opened up limitless opportunities for the old continent in every sense of the word. The acquaintance with new foods created major opportunities for people of both worlds. Out of this plethora of foodstuffs, the tomato was a vegetable at first not appreciated but which later had a profound impact on world cuisines.

Originating in Mexico, the tomato is known to have a past going back to pre-history. It was first introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century. Quite sour when green, it becomes soft and juicy upon ripening to the point that it literally falls apart when cooked, which at first led people to assume it was poisonous. Indeed, many years would pass before people could decide at what stage the tomato should be consumed.

Introduced to the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, tomatoes were at first eaten green and raw. Thought to have spoiled by the time they turned red, ripe tomatoes were shunned. Since the green tomato bore some resemblance to a certain species of eggplant, it was called 'Frenk badıcanı' or 'French eggplant', the qualifier 'Frenk', meaning French or European in general having been regularly appended by the Ottomans to products originating from the West.

The word 'tomato' derives from 'tomatl' in the Aztec language. Regarded as an aphrodisiac when first brought to Europe, the tomato was also known as the 'golden' or 'love' apple, as in its Italian name 'pomodoro', literally, 'apple of gold'. Its English, Spanish, French and Turkish equivalents  meanwhile are all derived from the Aztec 'tomatl'.

Italy was the first country to introduce the tomato in the kitchen. Today as well, tomatoes and tomato products are widely used in Italian cuisine. Although it was brought to us by the Spaniards, the Ottomans nevertheless played a key role in the introduction of the tomato starting from the Balkans and continuing through the Mediterranean countries to the Middle East and western Asia.

The tomato and its products are a common thread running through the different Mediterranean cuisines. As an ingredient in countless recipes for everything from sweets and savories to juices, sauces, soups and 'dolma', as well as its dried and pickled forms, the tomato has made an impact on cuisines because of its property of being consumed raw, not to mention its seductive taste. Used increasingly in Turkish cuisine since the 18th century especially, the tomato has unfortunately led to some Ottoman cooking techniques being lost since its sharp flavor eclipses that of other foods.

The tomato has even entered the ingredients of the stuffing for the traditional 'olive oil' or cold-served dolma in Turkey, as well as conquering our palates with its growing use in all the regional cuisines except that of the Aegean. In the cuisines of Anatolia especially, it can be said to have brought about  profound changes in nutritional habits. Various methods are even employed so that the tomato can be used outside the season in which it is grown. The making of tomato sauce, for example, forms a significant part of traditional preparations for winter all over Anatolia. With the help of the sun in late summer and fall, tomato sauce is made on the roofs of houses and then stored in cellars. Besides sauce, tomatoes are also squeezed for their juice, which is stored in glass bottles to be used later as a cooking liquid.

The inevitable transition from rural to urban in modern life has cut people off from the source of their foodstuffs. A need therefore arose of transporting foods produced in the countryside to the settled areas without spoilage. Whether it be preservation, transportation or economic constraints, all are obstacles to the production of foodstuffs by natural growing techniques. Industrial-type field crops have therefore been developed instead, and the old familiar tastes and aromas are quickly becoming a thing of the past in a relentless process that has taken its toll on tomatoes too. And what a pity that newborn babies today are never even going to know that tomatoes were once a summer vegetable.