Humorist Lewis Grizzard once said that it’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.

That’s certainly the case in most of America, but it’s also true around the world. The act of cooking and eating tomatoes is a cultural common denominator. Tomatoes are a versatile fruit, yes fruit, used in a wide variety of cuisines in endless ways.

Here in Maine, tomato season is well under way, and the crop looks “pretty good,” said David Handley, a vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Some gardeners are complaining that the blossom end of their fruit is turning black and mushy, a condition caused by a calcium deficiency. That deficiency has its roots in the dry weather earlier in the year, he said: It takes water to move calcium into the plant, and unless gardeners were watering their tomatoes regularly during May and June (July was the wettest month in a century in Portland), they may well now have this common problem.

“It’s blossom-end rot,” Handley said. “It’s just been a great year for that.”

But the dry start also came with a blessing “because we’re seeing a lot less of the typical disease problems that we see with tomatoes,” he said. “These are things like early blight and some of the other fungi that attack the foliage and cause it to get all spotted and turn yellow.”

All in all, it looks like it will be a good season for savoring sun-ripened tomatoes. While many people like to eat tomatoes on their own, with maybe a dash of salt, or in a simple sandwich, there is a whole world of cuisines full of ideas to try. We spoke with Mainers who came here from four different countries to find out how tomatoes are used in other cultures.

Peruvian origins

Wild tomatoes are thought to have originated in the Andes Mountains, mainly Peru and Ecuador, before spreading north and being domesticated by the Aztecs. They are a part of Crystal Cron’s culinary heritage – her grandmother is from the Andes, and her mother immigrated to America from Peru in 1985.

“We use them a lot in salads and stews and soups,” Cron said. “One of the things that I grew up eating weekly was a braised chicken with tomatoes and carrots.”

This popular Peruvian dish, tallarín rojos – sometimes called red spaghetti – involves braising chicken in a tomato-carrot sauce that’s been seasoned with bay leaf, cumin, onion and garlic, Cron said. It’s served over pasta, reflecting the influence of Italian immigrants. Tallarín rojos is often served with papas a la huancaína, a dish of sliced, boiled potatoes in yellow cream sauce that’s been spiced with ají amarillo, a Peruvian pepper.

“It’s something a lot of poor people eat,” Cron said. “If you’re lucky, you get a whole chicken and everybody gets a piece, but if you’re poor then you can go buy the carcass and that still gives the same flavor to the sauce.”

Also, a meal of fried fish and rice might be served with a side of quick-pickled red onions with tomatoes.

The summer tomato sandwiches many enjoy in Maine are not a thing in Peru, and neither is Cron’s favorite way of eating tomatoes – thick slices drizzled in olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and paired with mozzarella. (It is, she said, “like eating sunshine.”) Vegetables are expensive in Peru, Cron said, so tomatoes are typically used to stretch sauces. Salads are also a luxury, “so somebody wouldn’t just eat a bunch of raw tomatoes because they’re trying to stretch those tomatoes for a family of four or six or eight.”

Cron is a leader of Presente Maine, a community organization that advocates for immigrants, especially those from Latin America. The Latinx community is Maine’s largest minority, Cron said, and includes 25,000 people – 2,500 in the Portland area. The group’s Food Brigade, organized in response to the pandemic, delivers farm-raised food, including tomatoes, to anyone – from any cultural background – who is in need.

Most Latinx immigrants in Maine are Central Americans who were cash poor in their home countries but had chickens and backyard gardens to provide them with fresh food, Cron said, “and they come here thinking that life is going to be so much better, but then all they can afford to eat is Walmart and Save A Lot food.”

They could never afford to pay $6 a pound for tomatoes, she said, “so it really feels special to get people food from the farm.”

Bijan Eslami fans the flames beneath beefsteak tomatoes, red peppers, garlic, thyme and leeks, which will eventually be combined into a Chinese-style romesco sauce. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Shepherd’s tomato salad

Bijan Eslami, the chef at Jing Yan, an Asian fusion restaurant in Portland, spent the first 10 years of his life in Iran, in western Asia. He lived next to his grandparents, and he credits his grandmother for his interest in food and desire to become a cook.

“I spent a lot of time as a kid running around in her kitchen,” he said. “We had our own chickens in the back yard in Iran. My grandmother grew a lot of foods in her back yard. She had a huge garden. At a young age I was exposed to very good quality food, so I understood what good quality food was and I understood what bad quality food was.”

Bijan Eslami pours lemon-mint vinaigrette onto a plate of Shepherd’s Tomato Salad. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Tomatoes grow in Iran year round, no winter steals the pleasure. Every day at lunch, Eslami’s grandmother served a salad of tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, red onion, dill, dried mint and lemon juice. It’s a dish that helped make tomatoes one of his favorite foods, he said, and he still makes it. He calls it Shepherd’s Tomato Salad.

“There’s a fruit that grows in Iran called the bitter orange,” Eslami said. “We squeeze that bitter orange onto the tomato like a dressing. It’s very interesting. It makes like a sweet and sour situation.”

Eslami loves the umami in tomatoes and likes to keep tomato dishes simple to bring out that flavor. At the restaurant, he chars tomatoes over a fire to serve with fish, lamb or chicken. He also uses the roasted tomatoes to make his version of romesco sauce, which he serves over grilled jumbo oysters. The oysters are topped with a salsa of charred vegetables (bell peppers, red onions), crispy garlic, garlic oil, and vermicelli noodles – a dish that he describes as “like a Chinese street food.”

Eslami also appears to have a little southerner in his soul. He vividly recalls the first time he tasted a fried green tomato sandwich. It was in culinary school, and the tomatoes were marinated in vinegar and dill, then fried and served on bread slathered with mayonnaise. It was, he said, “a life-changing moment for me.”

“I thought that was one of the best things I’d ever had in my life,” he said.

Eslami’s Chinese-style romesco sauce, which he often serves with oysters. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A taste of India

Recently, Harpreet Churiwalla made a batch of green beans for her children for dinner. She added tomatoes to keep them from getting dry. The juice helps cook the beans, and adds flavor.

“Tomatoes go in literally everything” in Indian cuisine, said Churiwalla, who lives in Portland. “If you see me cooking, or if you see any North Indian cooking, the first thing that comes out is tomatoes and onions because that’s the base of my gravy, or my curry, for anything.”

Churiwalla’s roots are in Punjab, an Indian state near the border with Pakistan, so she cooks mostly northern dishes, such as butter chicken and rajma, a red kidney bean dish. She has lived in Maine for almost 20 years,

Rajma is a staple of North India, Churiwalla said. To make it, she grinds tomatoes, red onion, ginger, garlic and green chilis into a fine paste. After cooking the paste and cumin seeds in a skillet with oil, she adds spices such as turmeric, cumin powder, garam masala and red chili powder. The red kidney beans and a little water are added last, and after cooking a little longer the mixture is served with rice.

When Churiwalla needs something for dinner that’s not too time consuming or heavy, she makes tomato bath, or tomato pulao, a South Indian dish that can be served with a yogurt-based sauce called raita. And in the winter, she might make tomato rasam, a soupy dish that can be served with rice for a main course or sipped on its own. “It’s really good to have on a cold winter day,” Churiwalla said. “It’s good for your sinuses.”

Churiwalla also likes to keep tomato chutney on hand, which can go with just about anything.

“The best part about tomato chutney is you can make and store it for a few days,” she said. “If I make it today, I’m going to have it as a side dish with rice and dal, or roti and nan and dal. And then two or three days later, I make some other kind of lentil. I can take the chutney out of the fridge and use it again.”

Churiwalla will be teaching Indian cooking classes in her home this fall. The classes run from 5 to 7 p.m. and cost $45. For more information or to sign up, contact Churiwalla at [email protected]

Angola in America

Vanuza Croteau said her mother grows lots of tomatoes in her backyard in Angola – big red ones, like the beefsteak tomatoes in America.

“You must have tomatoes in your kitchen to cook because it’s just so handy and healthy,” she said. “We feel like without tomatoes, the food doesn’t make any sense.”

Croteau, who lives in Portland, has been in Maine for almost four years. She cooks Angolan food for her friends and her American husband, and she puts tomatoes in “almost everything.” She especially likes to use tomatoes in beef or goat stews with onions, potatoes, and seasonings such as bay leaf and garlic. This stew is known in Angola as Caldeirada, a name you may associate with Portuguese fish stew. Croteau says it’s called that because Angola was once a Portuguese colony. The stew can be eaten on its own, or with rice, and some people add sausage. “It’s just a really good beef stew that has a lot of juice because of the tomato,” she said.

She said tomatoes are also used in Angola for healing small cuts. Slice a tomato open and rub it on the surface of the skin; it helps stop the bleeding and the wound may heal faster, she said.

When it comes to tomatoes, Angolans and Americans have one thing in common, Croteau said: Angolans also love to put tomatoes on their hamburgers.

Shepherd’s Tomato Salad with heirloom tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, red onion, herbs and lemon-mint vinaigrette. Bijan Eslami, who spent his early childhood in Iran, said the salad is just like his grandmother used to make. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SHEPHERD’S TOMATO SALAD

Jing Yan chef Bijan Eslami ate this easy, summery salad at his grandmother’s home in Iran when he was a child. To elevate it, he suggests frying cubes of day-old sourdough bread in duck fat in a skillet to make croutons. Serve them on the side or on top. The salad is good eating for summertime porch sitting, he says, especially with a glass of rosé.

Serves 3-4

3 heirloom tomatoes
2 Persian cucumbers
1 bunch dill
1 tablespoon dried mint (find at any Middle Eastern store)
1/2 small red onion
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh mint

Chop ingredients to your desired bite size. Toss ingredients in a large bowl and let sit for 5 minutes so they can exchange flavors and get happy. Serve, garnished with fresh mint.

HARPREET CHURIWALLA’S TOMATO CHUTNEY

Serve this chutney with rice or paratha (Indian bread). Store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Makes 2 cups

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
Pinch asafoetida
1 bay leaf
2 dried whole red chilis
¼ teaspoon mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon black cumin seeds
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
4 large ripe tomatoes diced into small cubes
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
¼ teaspoon red chili powder
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the asafoetida, bay leaf, and dried whole red chilis and sauté for 5-10 seconds. Add the mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and black cumin seeds and sauté for 5-10 seconds on low to medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and continue to sauté for 3-5 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and sauté for another 3-5 minutes. Add the turmeric powder, red chili powder, sugar and salt. Cover the skillet and allow the mixture to cook for 5-7 minutes.

Garnish with cilantro. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.


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