Tomatoes in Chinese Cooking

Chinese noodle with vegetables in dish
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The tomato has a bit of an identity crisis in China. It's a relative newcomer, having arrived in China approximately 100 - 150 years ago. Still, it has found a niche in certain Chinese cuisines and is featured in several dishes.

History of Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a New World plant, originating in South America, where a wild species thrived in parts of western Southern America, from Ecuador to northern Chile, and the Galapagos Islands.

It's unclear how tomatoes traveled north to Mexico, or whether tomatoes were first domesticated in Mexico or Peru. In any event, tomatoes were one of the many new foods introduced to countries outside the New World following the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The first written reference to tomatoes in Europe comes from an Italian herbalist in 1544, nearly 25 years after Hernan Cortez is thought to have brought tomatoes to Spain following his conquest of Mexico.

And in Asia? Eventually, the Spanish introduced the tomato to their holdings in the Philippines, and from there it spread throughout Southeast Asia and Asia. They were introduced to China over 100 years ago, where they are called xī hóng shì (western red persimmon), or fān qié (foreign eggplant).

Tomatoes in Chinese Cooking

Tomatoes haven't had the same broad acceptance in China as other New World foods (for example, sweet potatoes).

However, they are readily available throughout China. As K. C. Chang notes in Food in Chinese Culture, both tomatoes and chili peppers improved the diets of southern Chinese by providing a new source of vitamins A and C. "Easy to grow, highly productive, and producing fruit virtually year round in the subtropical climate, these plants eliminated the seasonal bottlenecks on vitamin availability caused by the lack of good productive vegetables in such seasons as spring."

Today, you'll find tomatoes featured in dishes such as Tomato Beef, a simple stir-fry with beef and thick wedges of tomato in an oyster-flavored sauce, and Tomato Eggflower Soup. One of China’s more popular tomato-based dishes is Tomato Eggs, a simple dish featuring scrambled eggs, tomato, and scallions that is served throughout China.

In Xinjiang, where most of China’s tomato crop is now grown, tomatoes are used in soups, salads and noodle dishes.

Tomato Nutrition Facts

Tomatoes are a very good source of Vitamins A, C and K, and a good source of Vitamin E and Vitamin B6, Thiamin, Niacin, Magnesium and other nutrients. Tomatoes are low calorie, and low in fat and sodium. Their red color comes from lycopene, a carotenoid pigment that is thought to have anti-oxidant properties.

What About Ketchup and Tomato Paste?

Despite the sparseness of tomatoes in the Chinese diet, the country is now one of the world's largest producers of processed tomato products. In 2011, 6.8 million tons of tomatoes were processed.

However, nearly 90 percent of these products, including over 1 million tons of tomato paste, were exported. While consumption of tomato-based products has increased in the past two decades, people still prefer fresh tomatoes -- the average annual consumption of tomato sauce in China was 0.6 kg per capita, compared to over 20 kg in European and American countries.

The tomato industry would like to change this. However, it remains to be seen whether, over time, tomato-based products will find the same acceptance that fresh tomatoes are slowly gaining in the Chinese diet.

Sources: Research in China, China Daily, Food in Chinese Culture, pages 377, 378.