Just as a matter of interest, do you say “Toh-MAH-toh” or “Toh-MAY-to”? Both pronunciations are correct, just that the first one is a typically British way of saying it and the latter is American. Given that India generally speaks and writes the British version of English, I should be expected to say “Toh-MAH-toh”. However I call my tomato “Toh-MAY-to” for some reason.
Did you know that the botanical name for the tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum, was given to it by a French botanist who assumed that the tomato was actually wolfpeach, a deadly poison referred to by Galen (a 3rd century Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher) that was supposedly used to destroy wolves and werewolves?
The name tomato is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word “tomatl” and the fruit was apparently grown in Montezuma’s gardens from where the Spanish brought it back to Europe but originally grew tomatoes as ornamental plants!
Tomatoes were apparently considered to be poisonous by the early Europeans thought Southern Europe eventually accepted the fruit and it became an important ingredient in their cuisine. The Northern part of Europe wasn’t so enamoured with the tomato at that time, especially the British.
It seems there was some logic behind the thought that tomatoes were poisonous. The rich in Europe in those early times used to eat out of plates made out of pewter which had a high lead content. Highly acidic foods like the tomato would cause the lead to leech out into food and cause lead poisoning. On the other hand, the poorer sections of society would eat out of wooden plates and so tomatoes were safe for them! This is supposedly why tomatoes were more popular with the poor than the rich.
Of course, the tomato plant does belong to the infamous and deadly nightshade family so maybe there’s some truth in the “poison” stories that surround it.
In fact, there’s another story that’s told regarding the tomato. The tomato has a connection with the French Revolution of 1783. Patriotic Republican citizens of Paris wore a red cap as proof of their faith in the Republic. A chef suggested that they ought to extend their used of “red” to their food as well. The tomato was adopted with a vengeance especially as the French aristocracy did not recommend eating tomatoes!
Yet another story, from 1830, tells of how the Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson stood outside a Salem courthouse in Massachusetts in front of a cheering crowd. He had a basket full of red “poisonous” tomatoes, all of which he proclaimed he would eat and survive.
Apparently his own doctor had very little faith in this claim and announced that the Colonel would “foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid – one dose and he is dead. He might even be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he by some unlikely chance survive his skin will stick to his stomach and cause cancer.”
Luckily for the Colonel, the tomatoes proved to be non-poisonous and he didn’t die. There doesn’t seem to be any mention anywhere about the temporary ill effects of his massive tomato ingestion stunt though.
The tomato is now such an integral part of many cuisines and one cannot think of pasta, pizza, soups, stews, ketchup and a whole host of other dishes that would incomplete without it.
The tomato was brought to India by the Portuguese and today India is the 2nd largest producer of tomatoes after China. Tomatoes like many other ingredients like the chilly and potatoes, were eventually adopted into many of its regional cuisines and is used as a souring agent in most preparations. I find that the tomato is used more extensively in North Indian cuisine than others.
I come from a part of the country where my native style of cooking doesn’t use tomatoes very much and our choice of souring agent has been and still is tamarind. There are however, some traditional dishes that use the tomato quite well like Rasam and I personally use tomatoes a lot in many of my dishes which include a simple salad, home-made marinara sauce, or this chutney which is a family favourite.
A traditional Palakkad Iyer preparation that uses tomatoes is a Thakkali Thokku. Thakkali is the Tamil/ Malayalam word for tomatoes and “thokku” is a word that describes a spicy cooked pickle that resembles chutney. It’s served on the side with rice, and is good to serve also with dosas. Thokku is also made with tender ginger or raw mangoes when these are in season.
You can find many recipes for the Thakkali Thokku, some with garlic and onions, and variations of the spices used in this pickle. Traditionally, we don’t use garlic or onions so my recipe for this Thokku has neither. It’s just a simple pickle with few spices and a bit of jaggery added at the end to balance out the tang of the tomatoes. The Thokku should not be sweet though some people like a faint hint of sweetness in their Thokku.