Is it a fruit? Is it a veg? Knowledge, apparently, is understanding that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. The tomato is just the best-known not-vegetable though, and is accompanied by peppers, cucumbers and beans, among others. Of course, this information is useful only to contestants on quiz shows – cooks don’t care whether it’s a fruit, vegetable, mineral or compressed gas, as long as it makes a dish tastier.
The tomato is very much a divider of opinion, in my experience. I know plenty of people who dislike raw tomatoes; indeed, I am not a fan of those big slices of beef tomato you often find served with ripped mozzarella and whole basil leaves in lazy Italian appetisers*, or grilled halves of plum tomatoes acting as the healthy component of your typical full English breakfast. But the smaller the tomato, the sweeter the taste, and the number of cherry or pomodorino tomatoes actually making it into the pan / roasting tray after I’ve prepped them is normally fairly small compared to the number I took out of the bag.
Arguably, there is an entire cuisine which would virtually cease to exist (at least from a savoury perspective) if tomatoes were suddenly banned or went extinct. Italian food absolutely relies on them: carbonara is the obvious exception in the pasta realm, and as for pizzas, our favoured pizza restaurant chain experimented with a variety that used bechamel instead of tomato purée and quickly removed it from the menu after it was roundly shunned (disappointingly from my perspective, as I found it refreshing and delicious; I can’t be bothered making homemade pizza or I’d try this one). Generally though, if it’s Italian, it contains some sort of tomato, and if it doesn’t, it probably contains olives (which truly are the small stony fruit of the devil).
But the tomato is far from being the preserve of the Italians, and most cuisines have adopted it to some extent. I’ve shared many tomato-based dishes in the past which are Indian, and one or two which are Spanish; almost every major cuisine uses them, often as a base for stews or casseroles, as they are a great way of adding moisture to a dish.
What strikes me as a little odd is that, until a few hundred years ago, the tomato was unknown in all of these countries. The Spanish first introduced it to the world, probably from Peru rather than Mexico despite the Mexican derivation of the English name, in the 16th century, and in the last couple of hundred years it has been embraced almost across the world.
I say “almost” because there is one major cuisine I can think of which seems to have avoided this infatuation with the tomato – Chinese. They don’t appear as an ingredient anywhere in either of the two Chinese recipe books I have; the only thing they seem to be used for is sweet and sour sauce, which happens to be one of the few things in Chinese cooking that I dislike. Now this perhaps shouldn’t come as a great surprise – after all, Chinese food doesn’t contain a great amount of that humble spud either, nor do they have much use for cheese. But here’s the twist: China is the world’s largest producer of tomatoes, growing three times as many as the next country on the list, India.
Creative suggestions around what they do with them all gratefully received… it can’t all be sweet and sour prawn balls.
Having highlighted the lack of Chinese tomato dishes, there can only be one topic for today’s recipe, but this presents something of a challenge, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, aside from sweet’n’sour, most of the recipes I can find either involve egg, in something akin to an omelette or scrambled egg mix which looks thoroughly unappetising, or a soup, and tomato soup isn’t likely to be top of anyone’s Chinese-themed dinner party menu.
Secondly, vegetarianism is not a popular concept in China, as meat was historically only available to the well-off. Thus not eating meat is seen as virtually an admission of poverty, and food vendors often sneak hidden meat into ostensibly vegetable-based dishes. You can of course, as many UK Chinese restaurants do, simply substitute tofu or mixed vegetables such as peppers and baby corn into meat-based recipes, but I felt that would be cheating for the purposes of this article.
I’ve relented and gone for a sweet’n’sourish recipe which contains tomato purée (close enough). This one is very simple but best if you can get yourself organised to marinade the tofu overnight.
Garlic and pepper tofu (serves 2)
- 1 packet firm tofu, cut into around 16 pieces
- 6 tbsp groundnut oil
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tsp coriander root, chopped (hard to get hold of so if you’re struggling quickly dry fry and grind up a similar quantity of coriander seeds)
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- 4 tbsp groundnut oil
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 150ml veg stock
- 2 tbsp light soy
- 1 tbsp tomato purée
- 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar (or white wine)
- 1 heaped tsp arrowroot, made into a paste with a little water (you’ll normally find this in the baking section at the supermarket)
- 1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
- 2 tsp sesame oil
Make the marinade by grinding all the ingredients together in a pestle and mortar to form a paste. Place the tofu in a flat dish and cover with the marinade. Leave for at least half an hour, preferably overnight. Heat the oil and fry the drained tofu until golden brown on both sides. Remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Clean out the pan, then put the vegetable stock, soy sauce, tomato purée and vinegar into the pan together with the arrowroot. Bring to the boil, stirring to thicken, and return the tofu to the pan to heat through. Turn off the heat and stir in the black pepper and sesame oil.
* Here is a rather less lazy version.