As the extraordinarily cold winter comes to an end, the first batch of fresh, early-season tomatoes are starting to hit the market.
The tomato, which is in fact a fruit, is mostly classed as a vegetable because of its dominant use in savory cooking. The tomatoes that are available all year round are essential to numerous everyday recipes, but their flavor can be quite bland.
In general, the tomato season starts from June and runs through the summer, though different regions have their own timings according to the local climate and weather conditions, and naturally ripe tomatoes can arrive in the market in spring.
Originated in South America, tomatoes were brought to China in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and cultivated as an ornamental plant for their beautiful red color. It became popular as a vegetable in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Today, China is the largest tomato producing country in the world, with its annual exports of tomato sauce accounting for one third of the global total.
The northwestern regions — the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Shaanxi Province and Gansu Province — are where the significant day-to-night temperature difference and longer hours of sunlight support the thriving growth of tomatoes.
The tomato also plays a crucial role in regional cuisine. In the rural villages of Shaanxi, people would make steamed tomato sauce at the end of the tomato season to preserve the vegetable for use over the winter.
The tomatoes are first steamed in large batches to remove the skin, then chopped up and boiled in a large wok to reduce the moisture content. The cooked sauce is seasoned with salt, and some people add chilis to boost the flavor with a hint of spiciness. The tomato sauce is then portioned and sealed in clean, dry bottles or jars, then boiled in water to finish the cooking. The tomato sauce can be preserved for three to five months.
Besides the regular large tomatoes used in everyday cooking, novel varieties are constantly entering the market with improvements to taste and texture.
The goji tomato from the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, for example, is a slightly more expensive variety of cherry tomato (at nearly 20 yuan per 500 grams). The oval -shaped, deeper red-colored goji tomatoes are very similar to goji berries in terms of color and shape. This variety has a crunchier, firmer skin and extra sweet and juicy flesh that explodes with flavor. It’s very suited for eating raw as a healthy fruit or used in cold dishes to boost the vibrant presentation and flavor.
Fresh tomatoes are a very healthy vegetable (and fruit) in terms of nutrition, containing 95 percent water and only 4 percent carbohydrate. It’s an ideal source of vitamin C, with every 100 grams of fresh tomatoes offering around 17 percent of the recommended daily intake.
Sweet and tangy
Perfect fresh tomatoes should have a plump shape, leafy tops, firm and wrinkle-free skins, a vibrant red color and noticeable aroma. Locally grown tomatoes can ensure freshness, but highly developed logistics can bring better tomatoes from the far northwestern regions to the other side of the country in perfect condition, as if they’ve been harvested just hours before. Tomatoes that are allowed to ripen naturally are superior in flavor, but they don’t last long.
The vitamin C in tomatoes also drops significantly when they are stored for long periods of time, so when the season arrives, always buy fresh tomatoes in smaller quantities. When you get your hands on perfect fresh tomatoes with attractive sweet aroma, be sure to save a few for a sweet tomato salad that can be served before the main meal to stimulate the appetite or after as a refreshing dessert. The recipe cannot get any simpler: rinse the tomatoes, cut in appropriate slices or chunks as you desire, and sprinkle a generous amount of white granulated sugar. The dish is best enjoyed when some of the sugar is marinated into the juicy tomato flesh, while some still remains on the top for texture.
The sweet tomato salad is especially popular with children, and the spoonful of sweet tomato juice left in the bottom of the bowl is the best part.
Stir-fried tomato and scrambled egg is one of the dishes that define modern Chinese cuisine and the first recipe numerous Chinese people learned to cook at a very young age.
Every home kitchen has its favorite way of cooking the dish, and it’s passed on from one generation to the next. Whether it’s right to add sugar to boost the flavor of the dish has been one of the most heated, ongoing food discussions on Chinese social media.
The common process of stir-frying tomato and egg is to make a tender scrambled egg and set it aside for later use. Then, in the same wok, add oil and minced garlic to cook the tomatoes, driving out the juices for an intense flavor. The scrambled egg is added back to the wok at the end to incorporate with the tomatoes before seasoning with salt and garnishing with chopped scallion.
Pouring a ladle of the sizzling stir-fry with its rich sauce on top of fresh steamed rice is considered a perfect meal by many people.
The tomato and egg combination has branched out to other dishes as well, such as the tomato and egg drop soup that’s often served as a side with rice and other stir-fries, a quick and delicious topping for noodles with or without soup, and even as a dumpling filling (it’s made by mixing diced tomato that has been drained of most of the juice and tiny pieces of scrambled egg with chopped scallion).
For vegans, the tomato and potato combo is a classic and it’s a more brothy dish to serve with rice.
Some recipes require an extra step of removing the skin to improve the texture, the trick is to cut a shallow cross at the bottom of the tomato and let it sit in boiling water for 30 seconds, which loosens the skin to achieve a perfect peel.
If you have a rice cooker, then the one-tomato rice dish is a must-try. This strange recipe calls for placing a whole tomato in the middle of rice with the appropriate amount of water needed for cooking the rice, and once the rice cooker finishes cooking in regular rice mode, lift the lid and smash the tomato to incorporate it with the rice and season with salt and pepper. The result is delicious and very flavorful, and adding ham, corn, peas and carrots would complete the meal with needed nutrition.
Besides fresh tomatoes, there are also tomato condiments to speed up the cooking and allow more convenient storage. Tomato hotpot condiment is usually made of oil (vegetable oil or chicken fat), tomato paste, onion and pickled ginger, and it’s perfect to use in tomato-based dishes such as tomato and beef brisket stew to achieve an intense flavor as an addition to fresh tomatoes.