Chances are the dish you order tonight will feature the tomato. From tomato sauce used in pasta entrées to tomato sauce specific to pizza, diced tomatoes, chopped tomatoes, and beyond, tomatoes serve a wide variety of purposes in Italian food. However, most people don’t know much about the tomato’s origin.
The Tomato’s Roots
Most people are surprised to learn tomatoes have been available to Italians for only a couple hundred years. In fact, no one in Italy knew about the tomato prior to the Columbian Exchange. The tomato was first cultivated in South America and Central America. It is here where the Aztec culture used tomatoes for all sorts of delicious dishes. In fact, the Aztecs enjoyed tomatoes for several centuries. The etymology of the word “tomato” stems all the way back to the Nahuatl word “tomatl” which means fruit.
Once the Spanish conquered Central and South America, they brought the tomato back home to Europe. The Spanish also brought all sorts of other veggies, fruits, and even some animals back to their European homeland. There is some debate as to when the tomato made its way to Italy. Historians believe tomatoes reached Italy in the early to mid-16th century as this is the time when tomatoes were first featured in the writing of Italian authors such as Pietro Matthioli.
It is particularly interesting to note Matthioli and other Italians believed the tomato was poisonous. As a result, Italians originally used tomatoes as decorative plants. Tomatoes were gradually implemented in Italian cooking in the years to follow. The Spanish taught Italians how to cook tomatoes in pans, typically mixing them in with onions, eggplant, and squash. Tomatoes quickly took off in popularity as they infused delicious flavor into all sorts of Italian dishes.
Fast forward to the 18th century and tomatoes were popular with Italian chefs and everyday people. In fact, some Italians during this time period boiled tomatoes and sealed them in airtight containers to preserve their flavor throughout the entirety of the year.
By the time the 19th century started, Italians were using tomatoes in everything from pasta dishes to Margherita pizza and beyond. Italians soon traveled to Argentina, Brazil, and United States in large numbers, spreading their culinary methods across the globe, ultimately putting the focus squarely on the many different creative uses of tomatoes.
Now that you know the story of tomatoes, it is time to dig into your entrée and taste the magic of this flavorful fruit.