Dr. S.L. Marbaniang
When the Spanish explorers landed in South America, they became inquisitive at the reddish-looking fruit which the Incas and the Aztecs relished. In fact, the so called fruit is a member of the vegetable kingdom which is rich in vitamins A and C. Its scientific name is lycoperiscon esculentum which literally means “wolf peach fit for eating”.
Finding the tomato vegetable to be tasty and delicious, the Spanish explorers on going back home took some of the seeds with them to Spain. From there it spread to other parts of European Countries, including Great Britain. When the English colonists settled in the New England States of Eastern United States (U.S), they carried tomato seeds. Soon tomatoes began to be grown all along their settlements in the Atlantic coast. The sad experience that Europeans had with potato crops was the same with the case of tomatoes. They ate different parts of potato plant except the tubers which grow underneath the soil. They were found to be bitter and quite poisonous. Consequently, potatoes and later tomatoes too were initially planted as a decorative and ornamental vegetables. Like tomato, potato also was an original plant of the New World. Thinking and assuming that tomato was similar to potato in taste and quality, the earlier Europeans grew it only out of curiosity.
Tomato spread to different countries of Europe. Nobody tried to popular the crop as a food value. It was left to the Italians to discover the food value of tomato. Later on, the Italian chefs made several preparations from tomato, both as a food complementary and as an appetizer. Tomato juice was a later product. By the middle of the 19th century, tomato was a popular and standard item of the Italian food.
The original tomatoes were very small in size. They were very unsavoury in taste and they were quite acidic. They looked like marbles to be played with. However, the curiousity and experiment by earlier growers led to the improvement of the crops so that they became bigger, delicious and tempting. They also became rounder, juicer and more tasty. Enterprising farmers, by virtue of their experience and knowledge, have improved greatly the yield, flavour, and shape. They have developed varieties that can resist cracking and fight off diseases such as wilt and leaf fungus. Scientists have produced varieties that can withstand cold climate and these are grown well in the hills and plateau of Meghalaya. The warm regions of the state are also home to other varieties.
Like potato, within a few years, tomato became a popular vegetable item in different parts of the world. Various types of preparation in any form are derived, depending on the expertise of the chefs and housewives. So the crop that originates in the southern part of the New World found its way into the gardens if the Old World and finally reached back in the New World on its northern part. Tomato can be served raw, stewed, baked, fried, or in meat dishes. It can be made into soups, juices, pickle, sauces, and paste.
The tomato belongs to the group of plants known as the night shade family. Pepper, potato, eggplant, and tobacco plants are all related and belong to the night shade family like tomato. In this family, there are about 2,000 species which range in size from small, delicate wildflowers to woody shrubs. A few of them can even reach the size of small trees. Some are very poisonous to eat and are deadly. Some, however, are nutritious food. Whatever, may be their diversities, but all have one thing in common. The five-petaled flowers that they have are shaped like wheels or funnels. Besides, they may possess similar additional characteristics.
The poisonous substance or quality that nightshades have are because, of the alkaloid contents. These are responsible for severe digestive problems, hallucinations, difficulties in breathing and blood circulation, and sometimes even death. However, some of them are used for medicinal purposes. One of the drugs is belladonna which the doctors use to dilate the pupils of their patients for eye examination and for beauty. Belladonna is an Italian word which means “beautiful lady”. Witchcraft practitioners use belladonna to cause hallucinations and victims have a feeling of flying through air.
When people utter the words “ripe tomato”, many tend to visualize its colour as being bright red. But there are also tomatoes that take the colour of pink, yellow, or white when they are ripe. Tomatoes grow on a stem which needs support to stand erect. In its full growth, it look like a spreading bush.
Tomatoes need good amount of sunshine to grow well. So those that are grown in the hilly regions, like Sohryngkham and Mawryngkneng, they are planted on the slopes where there are few trees to deny them of sun’s rays. The best season for them to flourish is during early spring till autumn. Beyond that period it becomes very difficult to protect them from cold and frost. Soil of any type can be used for planting the crop. However, in the hills and plateau of the State, because of susceptibility to pest and insects, like butterflies which lay eggs on the leaves that produce larvae. These will ravenously feed on the young leaves until the whole plant is affected and so bears no fruits. So people resort to pesticides and insecticides on large amount. Consequently, tomatoes are to be thoroughly cleaned by peeling off their skins before cooking and eating.
In the earlier days, people used to eat raw tomatoes by just washing and cleaning and the vitamins are well preserved. But if the process is followed nowadays there is danger to health. Instead of natural and organic manure, modern usage of artificial fertilizers plus the generous application of pesticides and insecticides have made the crops unwholesome and harmful unless enough precautions be taken. The system of ripening the crop within minimum time by the use of chemicals has added more poison to these vegetables. That’s why, after all the cleansing process, cooking is preferable.
Tomato seeds can be directly sown or planted in the field. However, most people adopt the practice of planting the seeds in fine loamy soil in specially prepared places where enough precautions are being taken. The seed beds are covered, if necessary, to protect from frost, heavy rain, but opened to receive enough sunlight. The more the sunlight they received during daytime, the better the crops will grow and mature. It is essential for good and healthy growth. After about two months or so when the plants are 6-7 inches high, they can be transplanted to a bigger place which is more spacious for their growth. Fertilizers should be in sufficient amount, excess application will make the stalks to grow well and flourish, and more leaves will be produced whereas the round, juicy tomatoes that are desired will be less.
If the space is wide enough, tomato plants that sprawl in the open field can give a much better yield. However, to save space because of less acreage, so the farmers put up support for plant to grow or tie them in bunches with wire and string and them attach them to some small bamboos or plants. Since this is quite a tedious process, therefore, more and more farmers are relying on green houses because in the long run it is more fruitful and economical. If one takes a trip from Shillong to Jowai or from Shillong to Mawngap, one will notice a number of green houses on either side of the highways.
After about three months that the seeds are planted, the first tomatoes start ripening. These can be plucked and ready to be eaten or marketed. The plant, however, will continue to bear fruits continuously for 2-3 months, depending on the weather, and then dies. Tomatoes are delicate and easily spoiled. So at the time of plucking as well as in storing, they are to be handled with care. While crops are fully grown but still green, they can be picked by hand amd kept nicely in storage till they ripen naturally. But ripe ones are taken off the plants ready to be canned, processed or to be made into juice.
As mentioned earlier, tomatoes and potatoes are both members of the nightshade family. Scientists have been able to produce a plant that yields both tomatoes and potatoes at the same time. This is done by grafting the stem of a tomato plant onto the roots of a potato plant. These kinds of plants are attracting a lot of interest for their oddities. The production may not be bountiful yet but researched is going on to develop better plants of such peculiarities. The crops are no doubts, eatable though many prefer to keep them as souvenirs for the time being.
With progress being made in education, people are becoming more aware about their health and living conditions. As a consequence, they are very particular about hygiene and the quality of life by resorting to healthy and nutritious food. Tomatoes are gaining more popularity in the tribal households because of their vitamin contents.
Earlier, tomatoes were mostly imported from outside the region. Nowadays, the farmers are growing more tomatoes in the State. However, more research by the ICAR and State Departments is needed to produce hybrids suitable to the region.