In search of the tasty tomato

Commercial varieties that travel well and are long lasting have been developed, but at the expense of flavour

I have eaten tomatoes all my life. When I was growing up in the Philippines, my mother used them in most of her dishes, except when they were not in season. For her, a stir-fried dish was not complete unless it had sauteed onion and tomatoes in addition to garlic. As in most Filipino homes, salted eggs and fish were always eaten with sliced fresh, juicy red tomatoes, as was the Filipino version of “salad”, which was actually blanched or boiled vegetables dipped in a sauce made of bagoong (fermented fish or shrimp) and tomatoes.

Genetic mongrels: Most of today’s commercial tomatoes are beautiful but tasteless.

Our province, Nueva Ecija, was known as the rice granary of the Philippines and tomatoes were planted in the fields after the rice had been harvested. When it was time to plant rice again the fields were cleared and to ensure we had a prolonged supply of fresh tomatoes, my mother would transplant some plants from the fields to our backyard, where they bore fruit for at least another month or two before they died.

Since I came to Thailand, I have been cooking stir-fries the Thai way, that is, without tomatoes, but I use them when cooking stew and Filipino dishes that call for them. For the past several years, however, be it in Thailand or the Philippines, I could no longer find the tomatoes of my childhood. The tomatoes that linger in my memory were not beautiful by today’s standards. Bigger than the tomatoes now available on the market, they were somewhat flat and ridged like a pumpkin, but came in a more irregular shape so that no two tomatoes were alike. They were juicy and had a certain aroma, with a flavour that subtly balanced acidity with sweetness.

My best friend’s parents planted tomatoes on their farm and sometimes a plant or two with small, round fruit could be found growing with the main crop. These were known as cherry tomatoes but no one ate them so they were left on the plant, either to rot or for us children to pick and play with. Then I came to Thailand and to my surprise it was these cherry tomatoes that were popular among Thais, who used them in som tam, or papaya salad. Over the years, this variety, known in Thai as seeda, was improved to make it more resistant to pests and diseases, and the Thai appetite for them never waned.

Also, over the years, researchers and seed companies developed commercial varieties that could travel well and last long, but at the expense of flavour. That’s the reason why I can no longer find the tasty tomatoes of my childhood: They have been replaced by hybrids that are beautiful but tasteless.

Flavour is influenced by many factors, the most important of which is variety. Another is the time the tomato is picked. Tomatoes that are picked when they are ripe taste better than those bought in supermarkets, which are often picked when still green.

“Few Thai people have ever tasted a real tomato,” long-time Bangkok resident Douglas Craig, who is passionate about tomatoes, said. “Tomatoes here are genetic mongrels grown to get to market quickly rather than for flavour. Hydroponic tomatoes are virtually tasteless and odourless, hence really good restaurants fly their tomatoes in from Europe or North America.”

Mr Craig grew up in Northern California, where “tomatoes grew like weeds, and by the end of August most people had more than they could eat, dry or give away”. He recounted a story of taking a large basket of tomatoes to a neighbour, who was about to leave home with his own basket of the plump, vine-ripened fruit to give to Mr Craig’s family.

Mr Craig has been growing his own tomatoes for nearly 10 years, first in an organic farm near Siem Reap, in Cambodia, where he had a restaurant, and now on two balconies of his 10th floor Bangkok condominium which he calls “the farm”. At any given time he has between 120 and 150 plants, grown from 32 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. In bright south-facing windows he grows what he calls the “infants” and “adolescents”. On two enclosed balconies are the “teenagers”, some of which are beginning to flower and should produce ripe fruit within three to four weeks.

“You can tell whether a tomato is good just by smelling it. If it has a strong, pungent odour, it’s going to be good,” he said. “Some of the best tomatoes in North America come from home gardens in places with hot summers, like California and the southeastern states. Thailand is lucky enough to have summer conditions year round, so great tomatoes can always be in season.”

However, tomatoes need full sun and Mr Craig concedes that growing them on enclosed balconies like his are less than ideal. He is looking for urban gardeners in Bangkok who can adopt some of his plants. Soil quality is not important, he said, as he grows each plant in its own bag of compost. However, they require daily watering and “fussing”, which means some kind of support system, so that the plants grow upward and outward and remain insect-free.

“I have harvested fruit but my plants do not produce well enough with the amount of available light,” he said. “Nevertheless, my last crop gave me several fabulous heirloom tomato salads. There is nothing quite as wonderful as a plate with five or six different kinds of tomatoes with just a bit of salt and olive oil. I have also had success with tomatillos and have grown all kinds of vegetables on my balconies, where I also compost.”

Mr Craig obtains his seeds from an heirloom tomato seed bank in California. “Heirloom” tomatoes are old-fashioned varieties and, who knows, one of these could be the tomatoes I knew as a child ages ago. n


Email nthongtham@gmail.com.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Normita Thongtham
Position: Writer