By Michelle Bakeman
Two centuries after the tomato was introduced to Europe, finally victorious over years of attempted character assassination, the fruit began to win a place of honor in the kitchens of the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. The Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italians were industriously employing it wherever they wanted to add color and acid to their dishes.
But Western Europe was only the jumping off point for this fruit. Obviously, what made its way to Italy, inevitably, by proximity, reached Greece. In modern times, the Greek tomato is revered so much so that there is an annual convention celebrating the berry on the island of Santorini. There, the locals mix their small, flavor-packed tomatoes with egg and flour to create keftedes
And if one is lucky enough to travel to Greece in the summer, the guarantee is the opportunity to enjoy what is referred to in the United States as a Greek salad, or, in Greek, horiaktiki salata, whose anchor ingredient is, of course, the sweet, ripe, crimson tomato.
Also taking place every summer, and perhaps more well-known than the Greek celebration, is the Tomatina de Buñol, a tomato festival in Valencia, Spain that is celebrated every year the last Wednesday in August and culminates in what is conceivably the world’s largest food fight.
It is no coincidence that the Tomatina takes place the same week as the town of Buñol honors its patron saints, Luis Bertrán and the Virgin Mary (Mother of God of the Defenseless). There are many festivities during that week, including parades, music, fireworks, and a paella cooking contest. Paella is a traditional Valencian rice dish cooked in a large, shallow round pan with a flat bottom. Added to the rice originally were snails, perhaps onions, a few beans, and tomatoes. In later years, Valencian paella often included rabbit or chicken, and today, even seafood. The paella contest serves to glorify local traditions, but how did a tomato battle make its way into the celebration?
It seems that Wednesday of that week in 1945, during the parade of “gigantes y cabezudos,” giants and big heads, a group of local teenagers, wanting to participate in the parade but having been denied, began shoving some of the giants so that they could infiltrate the parade. One of the giants, after having been knocked over, lashed out at the kids, who, spotting a vegetable stand nearby in the main plaza, grabbed tomatoes and began throwing them until the police broke up the fight.
The following year the incident was repeated, although this time, the youngsters brought tomatoes with them from home. Town authorities were displeased at the notion that the local people wanted to make a tomato battle part of the annual celebration and therefore refused to officially permit it. Unhindered, the Tomatina manifested in some form or another throughout the 1950s until 1957, when officials declared it banned once and for all. In protest, the people held a tomato funeral, where they paraded through the center of town carrying a giant tomato in an open coffin, followed by a band playing funeral marches. The authorities took this display to heart, and in 1959, legalized the Tomatina under certain rules and regulations to ensure safety. Participants are encouraged to wear old clothes and protective eye gear, must squish each tomato before it is thrown, and may only throw the tomatoes for the one hour duration of the battle.
Only tomatoes may be thrown, and nothing else. Tomatoes are brought in by the truckload from an area of Spain where they are cultivated specifically for the event and seen as unsuitable for human consumption, and therefore not considered by many to be a waste of food. In recent years the popularity of the Tomatina has exploded, the town of Buñol welcoming thousands of visitors to participate. In 2017, more than 22,000 people joined the fight, throwing over 150 tons of tomatoes.
There are some outspoken critics against the Tomatina, however, as a tomato crisis in Nigeria in 2016 due to an infestation of a moth called tuta absoluta, saw the loss of 80% of the annual crop, severely crippling local economies and causing widespread panic, as people could not only not afford to buy the tomatoes that were available as prices skyrocketed, but even if they could, availability was drastically limited.
Tomatoes in Nigeria? Indeed, most likely by way of the Portuguese slave traders. These men introduced a variety of New World seeds to African farmers, who, through their cultivation, almost at once began to improve the health and longevity of the lives of their peoples, whose diets became enhanced by the various nutrients in the new products (tomatoes, peanuts, sweet potatoes, corn, pineapples, and cassava to name a few). As a result, ironically, the populations of West Africa started booming while at the same time facing depletion through the Portuguese commercialization of slavery. And while there is no evidence on record of the cultivation of the tomato before the 19th century, one thing is certain. The tomato in modern West African cooking, most notably in the cuisines of Nigeria, Ghana, and Morocco, is an essential component.
There are certain dishes in Nigerian cooking in which the tomato is indispensable. The first of these is the Nigerian stew. A Nigerian stew is really a sauce made with fresh tomatoes, peppers, and red onions, considered together as the “holy trinity” of Nigerian cuisine. Stews feature tomato paste, curry powder, ginger, garlic, bay, thyme, bouillon cubes, and palm oil, and are the core of many Nigerian dishes. The mixture is often pureed before it is cooked to achieve a smooth texture and to aid in the marrying of the flavors. Without this red tomato stew, one of the most important of all West African dishes would not exist, that being jollof rice. Because the rice is cooked in the red paste, the resulting dish has a reddish hue and is somewhat creamy, somewhere between a pilaf and a risotto. Jollof rice was invented in Senegal, named in honor of the Jolof Empire that ruled the area from the 13th to the 15th centuries. And although originating in this small region, the dish itself serves today as a unifying force for the West African nations of Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana, whose populations constantly compete to serve up the best plate of jollof rice to accompany their meats and plantains. Additionally, in Ghana, the tomato serves as the anchor ingredient to a multitude of stews and soups.
One such dish is called red red, a staple in Ghana’s kitchens. It was given its name due to the combination of red palm oil and tomatoes, which gives the final product its color. Black-eyed beans are cooked in the oil, the tomatoes, hot peppers and spices, and then served with fried ripe plantains.
Moving north, we encounter the culinary marvel that is Morocco. This nation sits at the intersection of North Africa and Europe, and therefore, its history is rich with the influences of the many peoples to walk its lands. We begin with the Berbers, nomads whose contribution to Moroccan cuisine lives on in tagine and couscous dishes. The Berbers were succeeded by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, and the Romans. And then the Arabs arrived, bringing with them new grains, nuts, dried fruits, and spices such as cumin, caraway, cinnamon, ginger, and saffron. The Arabs understood the technique of sweet and sour cooking, something that they learned from the Persians and subsequently introduced to Morocco. Next, the Moors and the Jews from Andalucía on the Iberian Peninsula enhanced Moroccan dishes with olives and citrus fruits, and the Ottoman Empire gifted Morocco the kebab. Eventually, other neighboring countries of the Mediterranean, such as France, added their own nuances to the cuisine, leaving behind their pastries and their wine. As a result, few countries in the world can claim the wealth of culinary history that is that of Morocco, with its complexities and flavors. Among them, of course, lives the tomato, glorified in many traditional Moroccan dishes such as zaalouk, taktouka, shakshuka, and harira soup.
Zaalouk is fundamental to Moroccan food, a cooked salad made with tomatoes, eggplant, cumin, and paprika. Similarly, taktouka, another cooked salad of sorts, also used as a dip, served warm or cold, is made with roasted green bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, spices, cilantro, and parsley. Many countries of North Africa and the Middle East have their own versions of the next dish, called shashuka. Originally from Tunisia, and prepared in a tagine, shashuka consists of poached eggs over a thick tomato sauce. In Morocco, the dish includes kefta meatballs, and is an example of Moroccan comfort food. Finally, and perhaps the most endearing to Moroccans, is harira soup. This soup is served every evening at sunset during the month of Ramadan as the start to the meal that breaks the day’s fast. The word “harira” comes from the Arabic word “haririun” meaning “silky,” and though this tomato based soup is replete with chickpeas, lentils, noodles or rice, fresh herbs and sometimes meat, the goal of the texture of the finished broth is smoothness. Moroccans eat harira with a special wooden spoon in the shape of a ladle, and to complement it, they have sweets, one of which is halwa chebakia, a flower-shaped sesame cookie that is fried and then coated with honey.
Just as Morocco connects Africa to the Iberian Peninsula, acting as the gateway to Europe, so Turkey serves as the bridge between Europe and Asia. The area of Turkey, also known as Anatolia or Asia Minor, was at the core of the Ottoman Empire, which reached its zenith at the end of the 1500s, and which was slowly declining throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to meet its end at the conclusion of World War I. During its period of decline, the countries of Western Europe were on the rise, accumulating fortunes from the New World from gold and silver as well as from the Old by way of spice route domination. Turkey was Western Europe’s land connection to Asia. Today, if one travels to Istanbul, located in Turkey’s Northwest region, one may take a journey along the Bosphorus Strait and marvel at the notion that to one side is the view of Europe and to the other, Asia. The strait unites the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Geographically speaking, Turkey is situated 95% in Asia and 5% in Europe, and therefore may lay claim to both. To the South, Turkey meets with the Mediterranean Sea, and much like its Mediterranean neighbors, Turkey was invaded in the 16th century by the tomato as well as by other New World food items. The tomato’s use in cooking, however, was slow to manifest, not really taking off until the 19th century, similar to what we have seen in other nations.
Today, however, Turkish cuisine would not be Turkish cuisine without it. Turks love to stuff tomatoes (dolma), to cook them with green beans and tomato paste (taze fasluye), and to fill fried eggplants with a delicious mixture of tomatoes, garlic, and onion (imam bayildi). A classic Turkish breakfast dish is called menemen, which features scrambled eggs cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, hot peppers, onions, and olive oil. And acili ezme is one of the most popular appetizers (meze) or salads all across the nation, featuring chopped tomatoes, chili peppers, onion, garlic, herbs such as mint and parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, and pomegranate molasses, truly the flavors of Turkey. This sort of salsa is served everywhere alongside kebabs or with breads. A stroll down the streets of Istanbul will inevitably lead a wanderer to someone selling classic Turkish street fare, one of the most popular of which is called lahmacun, which is the Turkish version of a crispy, flatbread pizza, and of course, often topped with, you guessed it, tomatoes. So integrated and taken for granted is the tomato in Turkish cuisine in modern times that it has made its way into common Turkish expressions, one of which is, “Food is good with tomato sauce, as a girl is good with big hips.”
From Turkey, the tomato was to embark upon its journey to the rest of the world through countries that had connections along the routes of the Silk Road. How would it be embraced there? Join me next time as we follow the tomato to the countries of ancient Persia.
ExplorePartsUnknown.com. Your Guide to Nigerian Cuisine.
GreeceTravel.com. Matt Barrett’s Greece Guides: Greek Food: Fruits and Vegetables.
NationalGeographic.com. To Break the Ramadan Fast in Morocco, Start With Soup.
Elizabeth Rozin, Blue Corn and Chocolate, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1992
Stanley B Alpern, The European Introduction of Crops into West Africa in
Precolonial Times, Cambridge University Press, 1992
Michelle Bakeman has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Spanish and Latin American Studies. She is also a graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. She has been a chef for twenty-two years, has owned and operated several restaurants, and has been a teacher for sixteen years. She moved to Cuenca in 2013.