The basis for so many of the world’s most beloved dishes, from pizza to salsa to the all-time classic that is ketchup, tomatoes are one of the planet’s most widely used ingredients. Yet it wasn’t all so long ago that the use of this now universal fruit was restricted to Central and South America, the region from which it originates. In fact, tomatoes only spread globally after the Spanish colonisation of the Americas, which began in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’ landing at Hispaniola.
Today, it is difficult to imagine European, North American, and Middle Eastern cuisine without the tomato. Yet there is evidence to suggest that over 2,500 years ago, ancient Mesoamerican civilisations were not only consuming, but actively cultivating the tomato plant. In fact, it is the Aztec word tomatl from which the modern English term is derived, whilst the Italian word pomodoro hints at the excitement that came with the arrival of these “golden apples” from the New World. By the mid-16th century, the tomato was being cultivated throughout Spain and was already making its way onto the plates of the nation’s people. In Italy, the tomato was used only as an ornamental piece until the late 17th century, due to the fact that people thought it to be either poisonous or not filling enough to warrant cooking.
Fast forward a few hundred years and how things have changed. Although used across the globe, tomatoes are today perhaps most closely associated with Italian food, where they appear in sauces, salads, stews, and much more. It’s hard to believe, then, that the ingredient has only been present in Italian food for what is, all things considered, a very short amount of time.
Imagine a pizza without that tangy sauce, or a plate of mozzarella without its contrasting partner. It’s impossible. Likewise, where would our salads be without the tomato? A universal ingredient that appears in all of its glorious varieties, from cherry to plum to beefsteak, and appears in everything from tabbouleh to salade Niçoise. Our most beloved sandwiches, from the shawarma to the BLT, have also benefitted from the dissemination of the tomato. Without the fruit’s fresh, cleansing presence among their ingredients, sandwiches would be reduced to stodgy affairs of meat, bread, and perhaps the odd salad leaf. This delicious, versatile, and varied fruit is unique in its global popularity, and the story of how this came to be will continue to provide a source of fascination for generations to come.