My brother likes fact books. He has a whole pile of them, scattered around the house; a “World of Facts” on the coffee table, a “How do they do all that?” beside his bed, a “Mammals: The student Library” beside my (!) bed, and a stack on his table that reads “How the Machines work”, “How the Body works”, “How the world works” … etc etc. He’s always been interested in reading up on little facts.
I, on the other hand, find most of them irrelevant.
Why would I want to know that the largest shark in the world is called the Whale Shark? I’d rather read some fantastical fiction than know how heavy my shit would become if I were poisoned by lead (that fact is a perfect example of Ishaan’s everyday attempts to enlighten me).
It was only recently that I realised how many odd little pieces of information are actually picked up and stored in your brain even if you don’t read ‘fact-books’ every morning with your tea. It came to me while I was chopping tomatoes to make Thakkali chutney for dinner.
I was wondering about the origin of tomatoes. You see, tomatoes are fruits (not vegetables) that you come across in all kinds of cuisine. In Continental cuisine you have spaghetti in tomato sauce, American fast food has slices of tomatoes sandwiched between lettuce and meat in Burgers, Italian chefs put tomatoes in Pizza, and the Russians have tomato soup. The Chinese have Tomato-Beef, the Nigerians in Africa have tomatoes in their chicken stew, and as for us Indians, we use tomatoes in almost everything!
How is it possible that the Tomato came to be present in cuisines across the globe? Where was it first used? Under what conditions did it originally grow?
My eyes burned as I peeled the onions for the chutney, exposing the crisp layers beneath the flakes of purple-brown. It was midway through a session of rapid blinking away of tears that I suddenly remembered. For my 10th boards, I had chosen Hindi as a second language subject and paper 2 had been an audio paper.
It was during one of those hilarious sessions of listening to past audio papers with my mother that we came across one particular 5 minute lecture about the origin of the tomato species in South America. I was unable to answer the questions that followed the lecture, but I understood enough to know that the tomato plant was exported by the Spanish colonisers from South America, to Europe. From there, the plant was taken to all corners of the French, British and Spanish empire.
Before writing this piece, I decided to look a little further into the question of the Tomato’s world expedition. I gathered that tomatoes were first cultivated by the Aztec and Inca tribes in Mexico. Now the only thing I know about the Aztecs is from Pirates Of The Caribbean, so all I know is that their gold was cursed. All I know about the Inca tribe on the other hand, comes from reading Tintin comics, so I know they worship the Sun God and sell oranges.
Who knew that Tomatoes could connect Tintin and The Pirates of the Caribbean?
There’s more. Not only do tomatoes connect Tintin to the Pirates, but also to the French Revolution of 1783! I was doing some research on the use of Chapatis as signals during The Sepoy Revolt Of 1857 when I uncovered this little detail. During the revolution, the Republican citizens chose the Red Cap as a symbol of faith, and under the suggestion of one of their chiefs, began eating only red food as an act of devotion towards the revolution.
It doesn’t stop there. Until 1830, it’s glossy red skin led many to mistake the Tomato fruit for the poisonous Nightshade (that was used in small quantities as a hallucinogenic drug and a beauty aid for dilating the pupils, as was considered high fashion 200 years ago). It was Colonel Robert Gibbons Johnson in Salem, Manchester, who ate an entire basket of tomatoes despite the warnings of his doctor, and proved that tomatoes were not indeed poisonous or in the least bit fatal to the human body.
Phew… what an eventful history the tomatoes have had. Thinking about it changed the atmosphere in the kitchen to resemble that of an ancient museum, of which I happened to be the curator. Feeling very systematic, (and much like Charis from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, a book I happened to be reading at the time) I placed the cubes of tomato in a bowl, as though they were delicate pieces of art, and felt an urge to dwell a little longer on the topic of tomatoes.
Tomato plants can grow upside down. I learnt that during a game of Cranium I played once. There was a ‘polygraph’ card that read “tomato plants can grow upside down” and we had to decide whether the statement was true or false. I remember the answer because I got it right by just randomly going against whatever seemed logical.
As for why they grow upside down, well I didn’t have Ishaan with me at the time, but fortunately, did have his equivalent: Google. With a touch of a couple buttons, I found that unlike most other plants, tomatoes are not desperate for the sun at all times. So they can grow any which way they like, including upside down, since this position helps them gain more water, though I honestly don’t know how.
Scrutinising the onions to catch them turning translucent, the corner of my eye caught the sugar jar. Raw tomatoes are delicious with a little sugar sprinkled on top, and I couldn’t help but pause for a bite of just that. The squashy, juicy, soft-seeded tomato is heavenly with something sweet and crunchy here and there.
I dusted in the chilli, turmeric, salt and coriander and stirred the onions while they buzzed like a swarm of angry bees. The pile of diced tomatoes was next to go, and flooded into the pan with a wet sizzle that soon turned into a low hum.
I love cutting tomatoes. At first, when you place the knife on their rounded surface, the knife just sinks a little but doesn’t cut. It is as though the tomatoes are made of rubber. Then if you adjust your grip, point your knife and pierce the fruit before bringing the rest of your knife down, it slices through so perfectly that you feel satisfied with life at large.
The Thakkali chutney I was making that evening is one of my favourite dishes to accompany dosas, idlis, and even bread sometimes. It’s spicy and sour.
The tomato rice my father makes, on the other hand, is something I could eat for lunch every day. On one of our trips to Honavar, in Karwar, Manju made this delicious tomato based fish curry that we had for lunch and saved up for dinner. It was so irresistible that when acha accidently dropped the entire lot, I could do nothing but sob sob sob all day along.
For me, the Aztec’s real gold is the tomato.
This article was originally published at www.shalomgauri.in on July 6, 2014, and then in Sirius #217 17–30 Apr 2016 “Thakkali Chutney”, under the title “Thakkali Chutney”.
Have something to say? At Snipette, we encourage questions, comments, corrections and clarifications — even if they are something that can be easily Googled! Or you can simply click on the heart below, so we know you liked reading this.