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The Little Red Fruit That Changed Indian Cooking

How the Subcontinent learned to stop fearing new produce and learned to love the tomato

Food historians give chile peppers the most credit for spicing up India’s Post-Colombian cooking. But tomatoes, which probably arrived from the New World with Portuguese spice traders in the 16th century, were also a game-changer for Indian cuisine. While capsicums added their exhilarating rush of tingly heat, cooks would soon discover that the glossy red globes gave a sweet-tart-tangy dimension to sauces, soups, dals, and chutneys. That revelation would forever transform Indian dishes.

In time, tomatoes would invade almost every kitchen on the subcontinent and would emerge as “one of India’s most important vegetable crops,” according to ICAR, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research that reports on tomato hybrids. Yet precise details about when the crimson fruits arrived and how they were dispersed remain an enigma. We do know that cashew nuts, squashes, and, of course, chilies, all originating in the New World, showed up in South India after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, seeking lucrative spices, discovered a sea route to Calicut in 1498, following Christopher Columbus’ misguided attempt.

Clues to the tomato mystery abound in Lizzie Collingham’s marvelous history of Indian cuisine: Curry, a Tale of Cooks and Conquers. After Portugal took control of Indian spice routes to Europe, fortune-seeking sailors, Jesuit priests, craftsmen, and laborers settled in the newly established Estado da India, as the Portuguese viceroyalty in the subcontinent was then known. At some point, the tomato—or at least its seeds—must have been among the transplants.

Most new arrivals to the colony were men. And as Colligham points out, they married local women, spurring cultural crossovers in cooking and ingredients. Along the way, tomatoes began to show up in everyday South Indian dishes such as Kerala tomato fry, tomato kurma, and the South’s most commonly eaten soup: rasam.

Light and brothy, rasam is considered the ultimate comfort food by rich and poor alike; many eat it every day. Simple in the extreme, the brew is merely water, a few spoonfuls of ground dal, and a kitchen cupboard’s worth of spices. A few juicy tomato chunks enhance the otherwise mundane broth the way butter does for dry toast.

To make their daily rasam more convenient, home cooks prepare rasam podi, a coarsely ground spice-and-dal mixture that makes an almost instant soup. You can find many recipes for it on the internet. Nowadays, the time-pressed can buy rasam podi on Amazon or from online Indian food vendors. But of course, they’ll still have to get the tomatoes.

North Indians also came to appreciate tomatoes and put them into butter chicken, eggplant bharta, and other dishes that have an altogether distinct sensibility from southern ones. Tourists to South India will find the food lighter, spicier, and laced with coconut, tamarind, cloves, and plenty of fresh fish caught along the tropical palm-fringed coasts. They’ll often find hotel breakfast buffets filled with tomato-y offerings including tomato chutney, tomato rice, and the ever-present rasam to accompany their breakfast idli (steamed rice cakes).

South Indians are proud of their cuisine. They love nothing more than to reveal its secrets to visitors who are generally accustomed to northern food. The region offers many cooking classes from week-long organic farm stays to chef-taught vegetarian classes. In Kerala, the tomato’s probable entry point, Nimmy Paul holds sessions in their refurbished home’s light-filled, streamlined teaching kitchen surrounded by sunny herb gardens. After you’ve learned all about curry leaves and kokum, your class feasts on such dishes as coconut-ginger prawns and the classic meen molee—fish in spiced coconut milk sauce, garnished, of course, with ripe tomato.

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