Avoid home-grown tomatoes this summer for better ones post monsoon

MUMBAI: High tomato prices are not the real problem. They may be available for Rs 80-100 a kilo in metros these days, but this is a common price surge at the end of a long hot summer and with a delayed monsoon. Farmers will plant tomatoes as the rains set in and soon prices should stabilise toRs 30-40 per kilo.

The real problem is why we pay even this much. Because most Indian tomatoes do not deserve it. They are hard and tasteless and ripen unevenly, so one side can be firm while the other becomes mush. Their flavour, if they have any at all, is just simple sourness, with bitter notes at the skin.

Sometimes at the margins of vegetable markets you find farmers from near the city who bring in the 'gavti' tomatoes they have grown. These will be less regular in shape and some of them will have split with ripeness, oozing juice and seeds. They have a sweetsour acid taste, which reminds you that tomatoes are fruits more than they are vegetables.

Some people grow tomatoes themselves, or have generous friends with farms, or access to farmers' markets, like the one held in Mumbai in October-March, which allow them to taste the joy of tomatoes grown to ripeness on their vines.

Some people may only experience this abroad where heirloom tomatoes, as the varieties spurned by the industrial growers are called, are prized in markets and restaurants. They are sweet and sour and full of complex, fruity, fragrant notes. Tasting a really good tomato, after years of eating tasteless tomatoes, is an almost sense-shattering experience.

In "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit", Barry Estabrook notes that most fruits and vegetables have a single chemical compound that accounts for most of their flavour: isoamyl acetate for bananas, for example, or furaneol for strawberries. And then he quotes leading tomato scientist Harry Klee:

The "tomato flavour is really complicated." It depends on 15-20 compounds, of which at least six are critical to what we recognise as the taste of tomatoes. Mark Schatzker's book "The Dorito Effect", about the role that flavour plays in foods, also features Klee making an even more important revelation. Along with Steve Goff, a specialist in cell physiology, he examines the chemicals that give tomato its flavours - compounds like phenylethanol and trans-2-heptanol - and finds that nearly all of them play important roles in our bodies.

"The flavour of tomatoes is inextricably linked to nutrition," writes Schatzker. "Of all the 400 aromatic compounds in tomatoes, there are 20 that seduce us into eating this luscious fruit, and every single one of them is made from things our bodies need." The corollary, of course, is that eating tasteless tomatoes means not getting most of these nutrients. It is easy to pin the blame for tasteless tomatoes on the agricultural distribution system.

Because ripe tomatoes are easily bruised and burst, farmers prefer to pick them when they are hard and green, and ship them to distant markets. Cold storages, which some have suggested as a solution to the current shortage, make the taste problem worse since, as Estabrook notes,"for reasons unknown, chilling reduces the fragrant volatile chemicals." The green tomatoes partly ripen en route, but are also helped by blasts of ethylene, the chemical that induces ripening in nature. Natural ripening, which is possible when farms are close to cities, allows more complex compounds to develop. Its substitution with artificial ripening is a major reason for tasteless tomatoes. As sourcing for tomatoes expands its scope, this will only increase. Already, tomatoes from north India are being shipped to make up for the crop shortfall in the south.

Yet producers and distributors are not the only ones responsible. Consumers must share the blame for readily accepting such tasteless tomatoes. Indians are generally appreciative of good, well-flavoured vegetables, probably because we depend on them so much. Our red onions have far more flavour than onions used in the West, and we love very distinctively flavoured vegetables like karela. So why do we accept tasteless tomatoes?

LATE ACCEPTANCE Perhaps this stems from our relatively recent acceptance of tomatoes, and the somewhat restricted use we have made of them. Tomatoes originated in South America, but were developed for use in Central America and Mexico. Spanish conquerors of the New World took them back to Europe, and also across the Pacific to the Philippines, as they did with other crops like chillies, potatoes and beans like rajma.

With those crops though there was extra impetus from the Portuguese, who took them from their main South American base in Brazil to their outposts in Africa and Asia (like Goa). Cashew was another crop spread specifically by the Portuguese, but tomatoes were not. Most of Europe, in fact, was rather suspicious of tomatoes, which they thought poisonous.

Only in the 19th century did this prejudice fade, by which time it was up to the British to bring them to India. KT Achaya suggests 1850 as its possible date of entry, and notes how even 30 years later Sir George Watts, in his monumental survey of the economic products of India, noted they were still being grown mainly for Europeans, though "Bengalis and Burmans" were starting to use it in "sour curries."
Watts' comment suggests the very particular way the Indians took to tomatoes. We had little interest in eating it raw since we rarely consumed vegetables that way, but were interested in its value as a souring agent. Indian curries tend to get spoken about for their spices, but souring agents probably play an even more important role in their final taste, and we use a remarkable range of them, such as tamarind, kokum, kodampalli, vinegar, amchur, anardana, lime and curds.

Tomatoes were a useful addition. They don't need pre-preparation like tamarind and curds do, they don't dominate as much as vinegar, and their vegetal mass adds body to the final dish. Indian cooks probably recognised instinctively what Western cooks did - that tomatoes had the ability to complement and enhance other ingredients without overpowering them.

This entry of tomatoes can be seen in older Indian cookbooks. In "Samaithu Paar" (1951), the bible of Tamil Brahmin cooking, S Meenakshi Ammal notes that tomatoes can be used in sambhar, as long as the amount of tamarind is reduced.

(In the current tomato shortage, some home cooks are going back to using tamarind instead.) In "Bangla Ranna" (1999), Minakshie Dasgupta offers a simple chicken curry recipe using tomatoes, while more elaborate, traditional recipes don't use them. Some cuisines held out against tomatoes.

In his wonderful food memoir "Lucknow ka Dastarkhwan" (originally published in 1980 and available now in a translation by Sufia Kidwai as "Classic Cuisine of Lucknow"), Mirza Jafar Husain writes that "in olden times, in the houses of the rich, certain vegetables were definitely not used, like snake gourd, apple gourd, tomatoes..." Orthodox Jains also avoided tomatoes, perhaps because its numerous seeds made it too 'living', though it is also said that its red colour seemed too much like blood.
Traditional food cooked and offered in Hindu temples almost never includes tomatoes. In contrast, restaurants and street food eateries embraced the tomato. Indian restaurants tend to depend on pre-cooked flavour 'bases' to which different ingredients and spices can be admitted at the last minute to make many different dishes. Onions cooked with ginger-garlic are one basic base and tomatoes are added as a useful sour element to it. Streetfood sellers in Mumbai discovered that at the end of the day all remaining vegetables could be thriftily cooked together with more tomatoes and butter to make the calorific snack called pav-bhaji. At Moti Mahal, the Delhi restaurant that Kundan Lal Gujral opened after arriving there after Partition, he may have been the first to mix tomato puree and butter into kala dal to make dal makhani. Tomato puree and butter also featured in another restaurant dish - butter chicken or its British avatar chicken tikka masala.

In all these recipes, it is the cooked and pureed tomato that is used. The slow cooking concentrates the flavour and makes up for the loss of the complex compounds (in taste, if not in nutrition terms). And since this was the main use for tomatoes in India, we were able to overlook its general tastelessness. All that mattered was cheapness, and it is one reason why tomatoes, like onions and potatoes are often sold separate from other vegetables, just piled high and cheap in pushcarts.

Yet there are indications that when Indians get the chance to try and taste better tomatoes they will take them. The gavti tomato sellers mentioned above always seemed to sell out soon. Gourmet food stores like Nature's Basket stock imported vine-ripened tomatoes (though there is an inevitable loss of taste in chilled transport).

Some growers like Samar Gupta at Trikaya Agro have also been growing heirloom tomatoes for some years now, and they always sell well. They have odd names and shapes: Green Zebras, Cream Sausages, Brandywines, Roman Candles, Dr Wyche's Yellow. But highend restaurants snap them up, and so do consumers who have tried their complex flavours and got hooked on to them. But these aren't always available. "The problem is really at the supply end," says Gupta.

Every summer for the last few years, for a few months the tomato supply dries up. "You would think we might have figured out how to grow tomatoes through the year, but it's not so simple," he says.

For the retail trade, which demands tomatoes year round, this is unacceptable and these tasty heirlooms have not been taken up for this reason. But perhaps we should accept that we do ourselves no favour, either in taste or nutrition terms, by demanding tomatoes all the time. Rather than spend on tasteless tomatoes it is better to stop eating them - perhaps using that as a chance to try traditional pre-tomato recipes - and wait till the tasty, healthy ones are back.

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