“Have you ever heard the legend of the seeded fruit, that is often mistooken for a vehg-eh-tah-behl?” If you aren’t familiar with the show Little Britain, I have one question for you…where in Chuck Noris’ name have you been??!!
It’s kooky, definitely an acquired taste but incredibly funny. 😀 Here’s clip of the Scottish Hotel Chef being asked about his soup recipe (which contains toh-mah-toh). Enjoy–oh, but come back and finish reading this post!
A couple of years ago, I began transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle. I won’t say “vegan” because although I’ve aimed to be fully vegan, that term normally implies that one has decided to renounce all animal based products food and non-food alike (like leather). I still own leather shoes–most of which I purchased before going plant-based. I also think some vegans are quite militant and not only is that a turn-off for the general public but it works against our collective desire of reducing meat consumption and its impacts. So, I’ll stick to the term plant-based.
My reason for going plant-based was mostly driven by health. However, I am also concerned with the degradation of our environment–the killing of rain forests and the stealing of land from indigenous people to make room for cattle or to grow feed for cattle; all at the hands of industrial meat production. Lastly, I felt I had an ethical responsibility to not promote the horrible treatment of animals in today’s mass-killing production practices. I thought about the fact that these animals live in a constant state of fear and stress; we all know that living beings produce stress hormones that are very bad for us; when you consider that plus all of the antibiotics they pump into these poor animals to fight off disease resulting from being stuffed to the gills with other animals…AND the fact that you’re consuming all of that shit…well, I just couldn’t. Like many people who’ve adopted a plant-based lifestyle, my lightbulb went on after watching “Forks Over Knives” on Netflix in 2011. However, I wasn’t ready to act. I then watched it again in 2016, along with all of the typical vegan greatest hits–Cowspiracy, Before the Flood, Earthlings, What the Health and Food Inc. I was ready. I also read and researched extensively, including case studies published by a number of physicians and recently the United Nations. That was it: Yep, I need to cut out all animal products and dairy…no question.
This transition resulted in an obsession with food history; and, in particular, the history of my ancestors…that is, history of the food indigenous to Mexico. I began researching like a mad woman focusing on the history of food domesticated in Mesoamerica: corn, tomatoes, chile peppers, chia, avocado, amaranth, squash, beans and many more. After all, these foods are the base of a plant-based diet.
Cue the tomato! Vente tomatito!! Que esperas?!
The tomato is one of the base ingredients in Mexican cooking and it’s no wonder as it is indigenous to Mexico (Mesoamerica) and it was domesticated by the ancient and indigenous people of Mexico. In fact, the word “tomato” is derived from a Nahuatl (Aztec language) word “tomatl.” The Aztec had two main types of tomatoes, the green tomato (which they called “tomatl,” pronounced: toh-mah-tel) and the red tomato (which they called “xitomatl,” pronounced: shee-toh-matel). In fact, Mexicans today are known for using the peculiar Spanish word “jitomate” (pronounced hee-toh-mah-teh) to refer to the red tomato. This is a hispanicized vestige of the Aztec people’s term for the red fruit (versus the green which Mexicans today call “tomatillo” (pronounced: toh-mah-tee-yoh)).
We have learned a good deal about the Aztec empire, its people, its food, its customs and culture via the writings of Bernal Diaz del Castillo (c. 1496 – 1584), a conquistador who accompanied Hernan Cortes from the start of the conquest, and the illustrated work of Father Bernardino Sahagun (c. 1499 – 1590), a Franciscan friar and amateur historian and anthropologist who learned to speak Nahuatl and worked with the Aztecs to document their history and culture in a number of pictorial codices. Having said that, so much was lost or purposely destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. Nevertheless, extensive archeological research has augmented the first-hand accounts of these two men who were one of the few to document their experiences and what they witnessed as they entered the Valley of Mexico and the great city of Tenochtitlan (now present day Mexico City).
The tomato was, in Aztec times and in the times of their ancestors, the base for sauces or salsas. Those salsas carry forward to this day and most Mexican people will tell you their food is missing something if there are no salsas to accompany it. Richard F. Townsend, in his book “The Aztecs” notes:
Aztec farmers inherited a knowledge of plants that had developed over thousands of years. Many more varieties of plants were originally domesticated in the Americas than in the Old World, and many of the immensely varied foods and dishes in modern Mexican cuisine today originated a long time before the Spanish arrived..The Aztecs’ basic diet therefore tended towards vegetables and fruits, supplemented by game animals, fish, turkeys, and other birds, and various kinds of insects..The Aztecs raised several varieties of onions, as well as red tomatoes, xictomatl, and green tomatoes, tomatl.
The symbolism of maize permeated Aztec thought…Beans were second only to maize in the Aztec diet. Like tortillas, they were served at every meal. Tomatoes, avocados, and several varieties of squash were also common, and squash seeds were eaten in several forms. A large variety of chili peppers gave spice and flavor to food. The seeds of domesticated chia and amaranth plants were ground in the same manner as corn and eaten in several ways.
Tomatoes were also a key product of the Aztec economy. Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz highlight in “Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs”:
…The Aztec economy itself…rested on the agricultural basis of the Mexican peoples–the farming of maize, beans, squash, chile peppers, tomatoes, amaranth, chia, and a host of other cultigens. Thousands of canoes daily crowded the great lake, bearing these products to the capital either as a direct tribute or as merchandise to be traded for craft items or other necessities in the market places.
I lived in the UK (London) for a year while I was on an international tour with a professional services firm I worked for. On my way back, I purchased two books, “The Cambridge World History of Food — Volumes 1 and 2.” Little did I know these things were ginormous! I actually weighed them today and they weigh 13 pounds! Just two books. I remember being shocked when they arrived and wondering, Oh shit, how am I going to bring them back to LA without going over on my luggage weight allowance?!! As I prepare to move to Mexico City, I am left again trying to figure out what the heck I’m going to do to transport these things…we’ll see.
Enough about the weight of these books, let’s talk about what’s inside! As you might imagine, these books have far more than I can cover in a blog post but I wanted to share some highlights on the world history of the tomato:
- “…its ability to blend easily with other ingredients has made the tomato a popular international food item and one of the most important vegetables [sic] on the world market.”
- “special attention is given to the tomatoes of Mexico because that region is believe to have been the center of the domestication. of the species and because it is there that tomatoes have the longest history of use…”
- “The most likely region where the tomato was first domesticated is the Puebla-Veracruz area of Mexico…”
- “…the green husk tomato…the plant is native to central Mexico, where it has a significantly longer tradition of dietary usage than the red tomato. Indeed, there is archeological evidence of it’s consumption…from 5090 B.C. in the Valley of Mexico…Basalt grater bowls (molcajetes) [a volcanic rock mortar and pestle used to this day in Mexico]…appear in the earliest stratigraphic levels of the excavation in Tehuacan, and clay bowls, begin to appear 1500 B.C. The word ‘molcajete’ comes from the Nahuatl term ‘molcaxitl,’ composed of molli (sauce) [side note: this is were the word ‘mole’ comes from. Mole is a Mexican sauce made with 26 ingredients, including chocolate] and caxitl (bowl), or ‘sauce bowl.’ One can say with some degree of certainty that they were employed for making salsas of chilli peppers and green (and maybe red) tomatoes, as they are still used in Mexico today.”
- In Bernardino de Sahagun’s ‘The General History of the Things of New Spain,’ there are more references to green tomatoes than red, indicating more frequent use of the latter…Nonetheless, all kinds and colors of tomatoes could be bought in the great Tlatelolco market when the Spaniards arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519. Tomato sellers offered large tomatoes, small tomatoes, green tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, thin tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, large serpent tomatoes, nipple-shaped tomatoes, coyote tomatoes, sand tomatoes, and ‘those which are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red, quite ruddy, bright red, reddish, rosy dawn colored.’
- We mentioned that in 1554 Matthiolus [an Italian herbalist who published ‘Della historia e materia medicinale’ in 1544 in Venice] observed that tomatoes were fried in oil with salt and pepper…This may be the first recorded description of tomato sauce. However, its first authentic recipe only appeared in 1692 in one of the early Italian cookbooks, ‘Lo salco all moderna,” written by Antonio Latini that was published in Naples [home of the pizza]. Apparently the Spaniards had introduced the Aztec method of preparing the tomato in a sauce into Italy, along with the tomato, because a tomato sauce recipe ‘in the Spanish style’ is included in the book. It called for tomatoes, chilli peppers, onion, sal, oil and vinegar. However, other receipts for tomato sauce were also published that did not ask for pepper, indicating a separation of these two foods in Europe that were closely linked in Mesoamerican cooking.
This above is just a tiny taste of what food historians and archeologists have documented on the history of the tomato and the Mexican people’s contribution to the globe in not only domesticating this delicious food product thousands of years ago but devising numerous innovative recipes, including the most prized tomato sauce (or salsa), and developing creative ways to cook with it that were later adopted by Europe and other cultures around the world by way of the Spanish.
Without tomatoes, there would be no gazpacho or pizza (as we know them today–the most popular recipes for both of these dishes contain tomatoes), no marinara sauce, no spaghetti bolognese, no Bruschetta, no Caprese salad, no Ketchup, no Caponata, no lasagne and no recipes “a la provencal.” Ratatouille would be missing something, there would be no tomato base for soups, no tomatoes in salads and countless other dishes across the world that use tomato as a base or key ingredient would not exist.
So, the next time you see a Mexican, just say muchas gracias. 😎
*If photo links are not provided, photos are sourced from my own personal collection.