The Tomato. The history of the tomato dates back an impressive 1300 years to the Aztec civilization of Ancient Mexico.
The Tomato and its Origin in Mexico
Despite its close association with Mediterranean cuisine in modern times, the tomato did not in fact originate on Italian soil, as is commonly thought, but actually dates back an impressive 1300 years to the Aztec civilization of Ancient Mexico. Initially known as tomatl in the age-old Nahuatl language, the then wildly-grown tomato fruit was not only central to the Aztecs’ incredibly-nutritious 700AD diet but an individual who witnessed the consumption of the fruit’s miniscule seeds was equally alleged to receive divine powers. Although remaining a Mexican, Central and South American secret for hundreds of years, it was Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortés’ conquering of Tenochtítlan (present-day Mexico City) in 1521 which changed the future of the tomato forever. Believed to have subsequently transported the precious fruit seeds to European shores, Cortés would arguably have never anticipated that the tomato would evolve into one of the most widely-used ingredients in the world.
- Yellow and cherry-sized in form, the first cultivated tomatoes were certainly different to their contemporary equivalent and consequently earned the name pommes d’or, pomi d’oro and goldapfel (“golden apples”) in France, Italy and Germany respectively.
- Belonging to the deadly nightshade family and owing to their bright, shiny appearance, tomatoes were falsely thought to be poisonous when first seen by Europeans.
Although relished by Mexico’s ancient indigenous inhabitants for centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish colonialists, thanks to its refreshing, juicy taste, the round-shaped, and at this point, yellow tomato principally remained a form of decoration when first grown in Europe. Extracting the juice from the tomato’s stems and leaves, European doctors were equally said to have used the fruit to treat 16th Century skin diseases. The object of botanical intrigue and medical treatment rather than culinary inspiration, the tomato plant would have to wait a further two hundred years until it was finally appreciated by the taste buds of Northern Europe.
The Tomato in Today's Mexican Cuisine
Applauded for their versatility and easily-achievable growing conditions, tomatoes are now at the heart of an abundance of globally-adored dishes and Mexican cuisine is certainly no exception. The birthplace of the internationally-valued ingredient, Mexico treats its visitors to an array of recipes which depend on the “kick” of the tomato-based salsa rojo to give them their full flavor. From chilaquiles to huevos divorciados to guisados to tacos, Mexican food is frequently accompanied by the red-colored salsa no matter the time of the day. Whereas chilaquiles and huevos divorciados are breakfast and brunch recipes which respectively serve their lightly-fried corn tortillas and two fried eggs with the extremely popular sauce, tacos incorporate the, often spicy, garnish in their overflowing, tortilla-folded parcels for a late-night Mexican supper. Equally enjoyed in their fresh form, tomatoes are also central to Mexican guisados, soups and salads. A hot meat stew which slightly alters depending on geographical location and which is typically served for the Mexican midday meal, guisados relies on the inclusion of fresh tomatoes for its highly-nutritional value.
Beginning as a locally-sourced, and potentially supernaturally-powered, ancient Mexican fruit, the tomato is no longer an exclusive Aztec treat but a globally-loved ingredient which has truly transformed the nature of cooking in contemporary times.