BENGALURU: The last month brought in sorrow, with the news of a few vegetables’ prices soaring above the 100 rupees per kilo mark. Caused by heavy rains, the price-rise brought much discomfort to both farmers and consumers. Some of those vegetables were the usual suspects — capsicum, brinjal — those two overrated brother-vegetables that enjoy a niche audience and high prices. Onions were there on the list too, but our nation is no stranger to the antics of onions.
Onion prices have toppled governments in the past and shaken up hastily made coalitions of the previous decade. Our nation has its own methods of dealing with sky-rocketing onion prices. Sometimes, we are told that there is great virtue in eating ‘satwik’ food, without onion and garlic. In fact, the humble garlic is not given credit. It is an indispensable part of our diet; adds taste and flavour — but never throws tantrums of price-rise and stock-shortage.
But to see tomato in the list of vegetables was a little surprising to me. India has a rich, enviable food culture dating back to thousands of years. In this long history, tomato has made a fairly recent entry. The first tomato was brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and its successors quickly made themselves an important part of our diet. Travel to any part of the country, and you will find the humble tomato having assimilated with the local culture. From the Punjabis, who add copious amounts of tomatoes in their Paneer Butter Masala. To down south, where we literally bathe the dish with tomato, resulting in ‘tomato bath’.
The tomatoes were such a part of our culture, that they entered our cinema too. Imaginative directors of the ’80s used tomatoes (along with lemons, mangoes and other vegetables) to show budding love in the era of kiss-less cinema. Even modern filmmakers were not immune — remember the film Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara? Where the leads broke their shackles from middle-class problems by hurling tomatoes at each other in the La Tomatina?
While the prices have thankfully stabilised since, there were reports that this could have caused a shortage in the market. I cannot claim to know much about the commodities market, but it made me appreciate the many ways tomatoes found its way to my stomach everyday. I had begun to dread a time when ketchup sachets are not handed out wherever I go. Will the gold-coated samosa in a theatre taste the same without a packet of ketchup? In fact, one dares say — will our lives even be the same without the humble sachet of ketchup being silently peddled to us? From movie halls, to restaurants, to roadside ‘Chinese’ stalls, to airplanes. Imagine being given the ghastly mayonnaise with samosas. Or having a plate of sinfully delicious chow-mein desecrated by pudina chutney!
Philosophers often ask us to appreciate what we have today, instead of lamenting about the past, and worrying miserably about the future. Last month’s spike of inflation made me appreciate the value of the tomato in my life. There are several vegetables that are native to India. Brinjal, bitter-gourd, and drumsticks. While they are all cool in their own ways, tomato is a red vegetable that makes all the others green with envy.
Pumpkin may be the ‘National Vegetable’ of India. The tomato was not born in this land. In fact, in many languages, the tomato is literally called ‘vilayati’ — meaning ‘foreigner’. And yet, the tomato has found its way into our lives, our cuisines, and our systems.
(The writer’s views are his own)