The history of your favorite (mainly) red nightshade involves a long and intricate tale that traces back to the Aztecs around 700 AD. Yes, the tomato hails from the Americas, although it took a trip to Europe – and a fight over its reputation as a poisonous killer – before it became the globally embraced veggie you know today. And before that, it left its (scary) mark on the European consciousness, global tax laws, dietary guidelines – and even the Supreme Court of the United States.
Yes, it’s been a strange journey. The tomato has had a wildly varying reputation over the years, considered everything from poison to aphrodisiac(!). I’ll explore all these fascinating tomato facts – and many more – in this history of the tomato.
Tomatoes have become a global tour de force today, but originally they were limited to only one pair of continents — the Americas. One study traces the earliest ancestor of the fruit to South America, where the grandfather of all tomatoes — Solanum Pimpinellifolium L., was known to have been first domesticated. This species gave rise to the S. Lycopersicum L var. Cerasiforme (S. l. Cerasiforme), which, in turn, birthed the most common tomato species known on the planet today — Solanum Lycopersicum L. var. Lycopersicum (SLL – the one you chop to put on your salad). It first made its way into Mesoamerica before finding its way to the rest of the world.
That’s just the tomato, though – nightshades, particularly the tomatillo, have an even longer history. A few years ago, scientists found a tomatillo fossil in Patagonia, Argentina they dated to roughly 52 million years old!
As mentioned in my introduction, as far as we know, the Aztecs were primarily responsible for first understanding the fruit’s versatility and using it as an ingredient in their cooking. We even derive the word tomato from the Aztec word “xitomatl” (pronounced as ji-tomatel). By the early sixteenth century, the Aztecs had domesticated a reasonably modern version of their tomatoes and had created at least 50 unique recipes using the red wonder as a base. Early Aztec writings reveal recipes for a dish that uses tomatoes, peppers, and seasoning – yes, recipes for salsa have been around for an extremely long time! We now know that the Aztecs of Mexico were a source for tomatoes that were taken to Spain and the Mediterranean by the Spanish conquistadors – likely Columbus or Cortés. We even have a record of the fruit entering Europe with the earliest mention of them being seen on the continent by Mattioli in 1544. (At the time, he essentially called it an eggplant).
Before making it to Europe, tomatoes had a good stint in Pueblo culture and had a reasonably influential touch on their customs and beliefs. The journey from South America to Europe featured a noteworthy stop in Central America where the tomatoes interacted with Native American culture. While the Pueblos certainly used tomatoes in their cooking, they did not explore it as deeply as the Aztecs in their culinary style. Instead, there were a few noteworthy associations between the Pueblos and the tomato. This included the belief that those who consumed tomato seeds would be blessed with the powers of divination.
Hernán Cortés is the Spanish explorer who is credited with introducing the tomato to Europe. He did this after successfully capturing Tenochtitlan’s city in 1521, and he used the Spanish colonial system to spread the fruit successfully across the rest of the world.
Before reaching Europe, tomatoes first made their way to the Caribbean islands. And after Europe, the naval path to the Philippines was used to take the plant to Asia. Its path to Europe, and specifically Italy (where tomato’s culinary popularity first took off), is harder to trace, but there have been several handwritten accounts to read. The first of these dates to 1548 in Tuscany, where the fruit was improperly thought to be a type of eggplant, and it was named “Pomodoro” or pomi d’oro. You might think the “Pomodoro” caused shock waves across the country and transformed the landscape of Italian cuisine as soon as it entered the market – alas, this was not the case. Many of the Italian tomato dishes that we know and love today are quite recent. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the modern-day tomato had firmly cemented its roots in Italian culture. Pasta and pizzas were around for quite some time by this point, but they depended on base ingredients such as cheese and olive oil for flavor until someone had the bright idea of adding tomato sauce.
The Chinese and Europeans eventually whole-heartedly embraced tomatoes in their cuisine. After the tomato’s travels to Europe, the fruit was also making the rounds in Asia, where it continues its popularity to this day. In Chinese culture, written records of tomatoes date back to 1621 during the Ming dynasty. Much like Italian culinary culture, China took a fair amount of time to warm up to the fruit. In fact, the tomato’s first records read more like a precaution – written records tell of a Western-originated fan persimmon. Although tomatoes never rose to culinary prominence in the same way as they did in Italy, several regions of China became quite reliant on the use of tomatoes in their dishes. By the turn of the nineteenth century, tomatoes had officially migrated to most parts of Asia. During this period, they also found their way into Syria and Iran. There though, they were widely used almost immediately.
To read more about the mighty tomato, click HERE