Today, the common Tomato plant is almost ubiquitous, found throughout the world in places as far afield as China and South America. How did such a simple plant come to play such a prominent role in many of the world's cuisines and cultures?
The tomato plant originates from the highlands of Peru, where it was used for various purposes by indigenous cultures. In addition to being prepared as a food item, some Mesoamerican cultures believed that by eating tomato seeds, their seers could become blessed with certain powers. Because the tomato played an important role in Mesoamerican culture, when the Spanish conquistadores finished subduing local Mesoamerican people, they quickly became exposed to its use.
With the Spanish, the humble tomato traversed the world. It was introduced into all of Spain's Caribbean colonies, as well as Mediterranean Europe and as far afield as the Philippines. In Europe the plant was long though to be unfit, especially in England and its North American colonies. However, it became commonplace in Spanish cuisine by the 1600's, spreading to other parts of Europe. Contrary to popular belief, when the tomato was introduced to Italy, it was not immediately adopted as a food source. Most early references show that tomatoes were used as decorative plants as well as minor garnishes in Italian dishes.
In England, it took another 100 years for the tomato to become widespread, as the belief that tomato plants were poisonous was common. By the Victorian era, tomatoes were considered a staple of the English diet and were used in a variety of dishes. In fact, tomatoes were even introduced into the Middle East by the English proconsul in Aleppo. The plant then spread to other areas of the Middle East.
Finally, though Spain's introduction of the plant into its then colony, the Philippines, the plant spread throughout Asia. It now forms a core part of Asian cuisine. Africa also followed a similar path to Asia, with the tomato plant being introduced into various parts of Africa by conquering European nations that established colonies and protectorates throughout the continent. Nowadays, tomatoes are used in almost all African cuisines, especially in East Africa and the Congo.
As the tomato plant gained importance in many nations, efforts were made to produce the plant efficiently and cheaply. The problems of transportation were mostly overcome in the 20th century, with the introduction of refrigerated ships and greenhouses. In the western hemisphere, it is possible to purchase tomatoes at all seasons of the year, due to the abovementioned factors. A recent trend has been the widespread cultivation of heirloom tomatoes, which are varieties that are older than 50 years. They are usually known for their different shapes and colors, which set them apart from the common cultivars widely known throughout the world.
The three most popular varieties today are the Roma, Beefsteak and Cherry tomatoes. Roma tomatoes feature prominently in Italian cuisine and many international sauces. Beefsteak are large cultivars that are renowned as heavy producers. Finally, Cherry tomatoes are small but flavourful, making for a delicious addition to any dish.
Although the tomato plant originated in a remote part of the world, it is now commonplace almost anywhere humans have traversed. Thus, the history of this humble plant is much like the history of mankind, with all of the associated ills and benefits.