Tomato, Tamatar and Tamata , opinion 31 July 2023 issue.

Tomato, Tamatar and Tamata


Kusum Kaull Vyas

Call this fruit, used as a vegetable, by any name but it’s ubiquitous presence in everyday Indian food has made it special and difficult to manage without. Though this red, round, good looking and these days much talked about, costly vegetable was introduced in Indian staple food only 250 years back, it has surreptitiously taken the place which cannot be replaced. There is a hue and cry about the Tomato Rs 200 per kilogram, everywhere in India right now.

Tomato the green, red, yellow, big, small, bright and shining is loved as a toast and zing to the vegetables, curries, lentils thrown in to add colour, taste and make any food palatable. It was not native to Indian subcontinent, Asia or Africa but to South and Central America only. In 1519, a business man brought the seeds to Europe and people started cultivating tomatoes for their ornamental curiosities but was not eaten. Most likely the first variety to reach Europe was yellow in colour since in Spain and Italy it was called Pome d’oro meaning yellow Apples. Italy was the first to embrace and cultivate tomatoes outside South America. May be this is the reason of using Tomato sauce sparingly in pizzas by Italians.

The French referred to tomatoes as Pommes d”amour or love apples as they thought them to have stimulating aphrodisiacal properties. In some western countries it was first known as wolf peach. Peach because it was round and yellow but fed to wolves. The English word Tomato comes from Spanish word Tomate. Though tomatoes were not adopted easily as this bright and shining fruit was eyed with suspicion for a long time in Europe. It went to America with the Europeans who settled there in large numbers in 18th and 19th century.

Portuguese introduced tomate in Indian subcontinent in the 16th century but people did not fit it in the vast Indian cuisine. It remained limited only for Portuguese consumption. It was much later when British laid the foundation of their Indian Empire, Indians took to tomatoes kindly. European sailors, traders, soldiers, missionaries, explorers and colonial officers introduced tomato along with other things to the subcontinent. Indian cooks who served in the British kitchens learnt how to use tomato as soup, broths and Shorba.

Hindus especially Brahmans even today don’t use tomatoes on Religious ceremonies be it any pooja, Shraad or yagna (Havan) like onion or garlic. I asked my mother why do Hindus put tomatoes in the category of onion and garlic, which is considered Tamsik , hot for the body whereas tomato is cooling . She had no clue. The answer I found was that perhaps tomatoes came from foreign shores besides it had no mention in Ayurveda or our scriptures. For a long time, tomato was considered as a brother of brinjals because of certain similarities in growth cycle and leaves. Till that time Indians used Tamarind pulp, coconut, yogurt as thickening material in different dishes.

My Saurashtrian mother in law called tomato as tamata. Rightly so, the Portuguese must have introduced it in Daman and Diu as it must have reached Gujarat’s vast shores like Batata (potato). Gujarati name for Alu / potato is Batata, grown in 17th century for the first time in Indian subcontinent was cultivated along western coast. Britishers introduced Potatoes in Northern India, with the adopted name of yam from Sanskrit Allum. Similarly, tomata was Tamatar in North and central India. It was similarly introduced in Kashmir by Britishers and there also people called it Ruwangan, something associated with wangan, Brinjal. The delicacy wangan Tamatar is a tasty dish of Kashmiri cuisine. The only difference between the Kashmiris and rest of india during the high Tomato prices is that Kashmiris still hold on to their traditional wisdom of drying vegetables, more so the tomatoes, which are sun dried, a practice of hundreds of years. In Kashmir most of the vegetables are sun dried for the use during winters. This culture was a means to survive harsh winters, when snow covered the soil from December to March and nothing grew from October to March. Vegetables were cut in different shapes and sizes, put on a sheet under the sun, covered by a Malmal cloth and left to dry. Garlands of few vegetables like bottle gourd, brinjals, turnip, red chillies etc. would be seen hanging on the outside walls of the houses in Autumn. Tomatoes were sun dried so it would give them a firm texture and unique sweet tart flavour. These were used in winter when there were no fresh tomatoes available like other vegetables.

Today vegetables from Jammu and Punjab come easily in winters through the road connecting Jammu, Anantnag and Srinagar. This was possible only after Jawahar Tunnel was made in 1956, In the Pir Panjal range on its highest peak of Manimahesh kailash peak. Banihal tunnel another name for Jawahar tunnel connects Banihal and qazigund round the year. Prior to 1956, the road to Jammu was to travel on this mountain range on foot, horses and horse carts. Some people would get injured, die, fall off cliffs during rain and snow. This arduous journey was taken only by few, who could not afford to take the long route of Kashmir, Muzaffarabad (presently Pakistan occupied Kashmir), Muree, Rawalpindi, Lahore (Now Pakistan) and Dilli. No one would be back before one month or more, from Srinagar to Dilli which today takes half an hour by Aeroplane. If someone got any vegetables from anywhere in winter, it would be spring by the time he reached back to the valley. In such difficult winters, using dried vegetables was the best practice. Today we get every vegetable from any corner of the world with the click of a finger. Sun dried tomatoes are extremely popular now and are used in wide variety of dishes, soups, salads, pasta, pizza in meat and fish as a delicacy because of its particular taste. They also are a quick snack on their own. It has a shelf life of 6-9 months, when packed in malmal cloth or a tight plastic bag. I would suggest keeping them in fridge in a hot climate like Gujarat. Ripe tomatoes when cheap in winters here, can be sun dried. Another way is to cut the tomato in half, sprinkle with sea salt, lay on mats or cloth under heat until moisture is eliminated. Do cover with malmal cloth or a net otherwise the over dust may sprinkle its flavour. Drying intensifies their flavour, tart acidity and appeal in creamy texture. This is a ready supply of tomatoes all year long. There will be no tension of price rise of tomatoes, come what may.

Italians had taken early to sun dried tomatoes and even today they rehydrate them by marinating with oil or vinegar, with added zing of herbs and spices. If you are in Rome, Florence or Venice, do order a dish with sun dried tomatoes, I bet you will love it. Ask for Ruwangan flavoured dish, when in Kashmir. You will spend the same amount of money for tomato in Italy, tamatar in Dilli and tamata in Gujarat, provided it is Sun dried.

-Kusum Kaull Vyass