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When did we start using tomatoes in Indian food?

If you have been following the furore over the price of tomatoes, you will note that reporters and political analysts often refer to tomatoes as a basic staple of Indian cooking and the food of the common man.

Yeah? Well, may be.


The truth is that while tomatoes turn up in dishes all over India, they are not a traditional ingredient in Indian cuisines. As we all know Europeans (mainly the Portuguese) introduced the chilli and potato to India and our cooks incorporated these ingredients into our cuisine.


   The tomato is usually treated on par with potatoes and chilli. After all, it is a New World vegetable (or fruit, if you want to get into that biology versus usage debate) that the Portuguese took around the world.


   But the tomato did not catch on in India at the same time as the chilli and potato. There is some evidence that the Portuguese brought long tomatoes to India (that’s one theory used to explain an early Indian name for the tomato: vilayati baingan) but tomatoes don’t seem to have been incorporated into most Indian cuisines for centuries.


   The round red tomato only really makes an appearance in Indian culinary history much later, around 1860 or so. KT Achaya, the late food historian, suggested that it was only after the British started planting tomatoes in India in the late 19th Century (several centuries after the chilli became a staple) that Indians became familiar with it.


   What this means is that — with the exception of dishes created in the 20th Century — Indian cuisine does not depend on tomatoes. (At least not in the way that it depends on onions.) It’s hard to find a recipe book written before 1960 that mentions tomatoes. Yes, you will find tomatoes used everywhere now but rarely are they integral to most dishes. As the chef and walking gastronomic encyclopedia Kunal Kapoor points out, rare is the home-cooking dish that cannot be made without tomatoes. It will taste different without the tomato, but it won’t necessarily taste bad because the original recipe had no tomatoes to begin with.


   If you look at the pattern of tomato consumption in India, a substantial proportion of the consumption is not from the home cook but from the restaurant/packaged food/fast food sector. Could this be one reason why the sharp rise in the price of tomatoes has not provoked the kind of public anger that a rise in the price of onions always generates?


   So when did we start using tomatoes in Indian food? Almost by definition it has to be the 20th Century. Some food historians suggest that tomatoes first caught on in Bengal and the East. Cooks from the East travelled all over India adding tomatoes to existing recipes. The tomatoes added a certain zing to dishes and became popular all over India.


   The other major development was the rise of Punjabi restaurant cuisine in Delhi as late as the 1950s. Traditionally Punjabi black dal had no tomatoes. Nor did Punjabi mutton curries. That changed in the post Partition-era with the popularity of such dishes as Dal Makhni and Butter Chicken, both of which depended heavily on tomato puree. Punjabis will now add tomatoes to the dal they make at home, something their grandmothers would probably never have done.


   And yet the spread of tomatoes in Indian cuisine has run up against certain obstacles. In most old Indian temples, they will not add tomatoes to the food they cook for devotees. These dishes are made according to old recipes and tomatoes never featured in them. Even in Sikh langars, dal is not made with tomatoes though I gather that in some modern gurdwaras this is beginning to change.


 "My theory has always been that the development of Indian food from 1960 onwards has been influenced by the Indian discovery of umami flavours."

   The other great obstacle to the ubiquity of the tomato is traditional Muslim cooking. They do not use tomatoes in Awadhi cooking. There are no tomatoes in biryani and no tomato puree in their Kormas. Even in Hyderabad, where the food has more sourness than in Lucknow, you were not supposed to add tomatoes to a biryani. (Though a tomato salan has caught on.)


   Why do people add tomatoes to dishes that never needed them earlier? I reckon it happened in two ways. Most of the tomatoes you will find in the Indian market are not as flavourful as San Marzano or other Italian tomatoes.


   In India, we like the sourness of tomatoes. And when you ask cooks why they use tomatoes, the most common answer is “for the sourness”.


   Manjit Gill agrees that tomatoes only really became popular as a souring agent in the second half of the 20th century. He says that as tomatoes began to catch on an older generation of cooks scoffed that ‘if you don’t know how to make tasty food, add tomatoes ‘, which is not exactly a great compliment.


   But there is also the umami factor. Umami is the fifth taste, one that Western scientists have finally accepted exists though the Japanese have been arguing for it for over a century. It’s a taste (the taste of chicken broth or soya sauce) which is hard to define and one that develops as some foods get more concentrated. There is not a lot of umami in fresh tomatoes. But tomato ketchup and tomato puree have lots of umami.


   My theory has always been that the development of Indian food from 1960 onwards has been influenced by the Indian discovery of umami flavours. That accounts for the popularity of butter chicken (tomato purée), of Chinese food (soya sauce) and the sushi boom (soya sauce again).


   One reason why the tomato gained in popularity over the last few decades is because umami-seeking Indians began looking for umami-rich concentrated tomato products. Butter chicken draws people because of the tomato puree. Indian Chinese food has tomato ketchup (apart from soya). The most popular pastas in India are made with tomato sauces. Pizza relies on tomato paste. So, as Kunal Kapoor says, it is the eating-out and takeaway sector that really relies on tomatoes.


   I spoke to Viraj Bahl, who runs Veeba, the tomato sauce king of India. Veeba makes ketchup for fast food companies. Some, like Burger King, put ketchup in their burgers. The others offers it as an add-on. The pizza companies thrive on Viraj’s tomato sauce.


   Many Veeba products rely on concentrated tomato paste, usually from Maharashtra, and not on fresh tomatoes. As Indians have discovered the umami in concentrated tomato products, Veeba’s sales have risen through the roof though I imagine, with prices being what they are, Viraj is taking a beating on some of his products. (What do makers of cheaper ketchup do when tomato prices soar? Yes, you are right. They add kaddu.)


   But here’s the irony in all of this. Though Indians have fallen in love with the sourness and the umami-content of the tomato, we still don’t appreciate the rich taste of a fresh tomato. Most tomatoes in the market taste of cardboard. I asked Achintya Anand of Krishicress, who keeps my kitchen stocked with interesting vegetables, where he sources his tomatoes from. In India (unlike many European countries) tomatoes are always in season. If they are not growing in Solan, they are growing in Bangalore and so on.


   But there is very little discrimination in the market between various breeds of tomatoes, admits Anand. There are two basic categories: desi tomatoes grown from local seeds and so-called hybrid tomatoes made from breeds developed by various agricultural institutions. The hybrids have enriched farmers because they are hardier and offer high yields. But they have often made our dining tables poorer because they don’t necessarily taste very good.


   Does it matter? I guess not. Few of us eat the tomato as it should be eaten: for its taste alone. It is not an Indian ingredient and we don’t fully appreciate its flavour. We use it for the sourness or concentrate it for the umami. And that’s good enough for most of us.



Posted On: 01 Sep 2023 11:30 AM
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