Though a fruit the tomato is the ruby of vegetables. Desired and sought after, in a complex history it originated in the folded mountain valleys and deserts of the Andes, where its wild cousins still live. First it conquered Central America and then the world before returning home to Peru to show its gem-like brilliance.
This delicate and yet magical plant fruit that has transformed the cuisines of many lands, from Mexico to Italy and beyond, strangely enough is a very close relative of the potato also native to Peru. Botanists classify both in the solanum genus, with the potato being S. Tuberosum and the tomato being S. Lycopersicum, the one a tuber and the other a fruit of similar looking plants.
Across the Andes wild plants with leaves and flowers that look awfully similar to those of domesticated tomatoes or potatoes grow among other vegetation. Botanists say there are at least thirteen recognized species of tomato with more to come since field botanists have yet to fully find or classify all the wild species of the Andes.
Though the potato fed the Andes and laid the root of its classic civilizations, such as Moche, Tiwanaku, and the Incas, its cousin the tomato was apparently ignored there. I say apparently because I have doubts. When similar plants such as the tomate con cola, or tree tomato (solanum betaceum) or the cocona (Solanum sessiliflorum) were used, why would other species not be similarly used. But there seems to be no record in archeology of such use. It was not domesticated in Peru.
The tomato wears mystery like a fine gem its setting. Somehow it got from South America to Central America and was, again somehow, domesticated. The Spanish found it there and in their unslakable thirst for wealth and brilliance took it home and then around the world.
Surprisingly, both domesticated potatoes and tomatoes have far more genes than do human beings. Only recently have they been fully sequenced. These are very complex crops, and yet for some strange reason their leaves and flowers seem amazingly similar. They just do not seem to vary much. But flavor, texture, and portability of the fruit sure do vary from one variety to another.
The somewhat tart flavor with a hint of sweet and a hint of muskiness, along with intense color, make the tomato a delight to eat, a staple of salads, and a necessity for so many sauces seemingly everywhere.
Yet it is strange to note that the tomato has not entered strongly into the native cuisine of Cuzco. It has its place in creole cuisine. It provides balance to the meat, onion, and its cousin the potato in Peru’s signature lomo saltado, and its brightens pasta in Peru’s classic tallarines rojos, or red noodles. Both of those dishes were apparently wrought on Peruvian soil by immigrants, the first the Chinese and the second the Italians, in the nineteenth century.
The tomato in Cuzco is a late guest at an already formed banquet and has yet to earn its own name card. Nevertheless, tomatoes are found in Cuzco’s markets and are raised commercially in the semi-tropical area of Marcapata, where Cuzco’s commercial rocotos, its hot peppers, also come from.
They arrive greenish and hard in the wholesale market of Vino Canchón with all the other produce for Cuzco and from there are distributed throughout the city to its large and small markets and stores. But Cuzco’s chilly nights are not good for tomatoes. They do not take well to refrigeration if they are to develop full flavor and really ripen.
The tomatoes in Cuzco look like they are a plum variety. They are elongated, fleshy, and firm. And, there only seems to be one variety sold here.
Tomatoes make there way into packages of tomato sauce and lots of bags of ketchup. Those foreign condiments, the one Italian and the other part of the North American commercial empire that has traipsed over the globe, claim increasing demand int eh markets of Cuzco and elsewhere in Peru. They are definite symbols of high modernity.
The tomato has yet to provide its richness, variety, or complexity to the native cuisine of Cuzco, other than as accents like gems on fingers. They are yet to provide the full cloth of Cuzco’s gastronomy.
Maybe that conquest is in the offing, as has happened so many other places around the world, or maybe the tomato is condemned in its homeland to remain exotic and foreign, the add on sauce, or the decoration, rather than the main event. Only time will tell.