Tomaters that Matter

Tomaters that Matter

The other day, my daughter and I were in the impossibly large food court in Ikebukuro’s Seibu department store.  In the produce section, a man was handing out samples of a mango priced at about $50.  The mangos were individually packaged in wooden boxes, nestled in soft paper, looking as much like art-works as pieces of fruit.  What could possibly make a mango worth $50?  Well, we tasted that mango.  It was custard-like, rich and decadent.  The flavor lingered and lingered, the aroma of mango overwhelming my senses. An aristocrat to the lumpen prole stringy mangoes we get in the states.  I could not bring myself to spend $50, but I thought about that fruit in the days that followed.

Fruit and produce in Japan is amazing, maybe the best I have ever had — only my memories of Italian vegetables give me pause at handing out the title.  In Japan,  fruit is often given as a gift.  Everyone likes to eat it, especially in multi-generational homes with grandparents and children.  The gift aspect drives the ridiculous premiums paid for quality; and as the supply chain — given Japan’s size — is miniscule compared to the US, farmers are able to focus on flavor and appearance rather than on durability.  Japan, about the size of California, is rife with micro-climates from mountainous to sub-tropical — and the variety of crops reflects this.  A pair of melons, grown in Hokkaido’s Yubari region recently sold at auction for almost $40,000.  The winner of these pricey fruits was the owner of a grocery chain. He wanted to give back to the Yubari farmers who always ship him the best goods — as a benefit, the free publicity for both the chain and the melons caused record-breaking business in the following months.  The Yubari melons (and other high-end melons) are cultivated through one plant, one melon models (the farmers strip the plant of other flowers allowing for all the plant’s attention to be focused on one very spoiled child).  The melons are perfectly round, easy-to-damage and quick to spoil.  While not reaching the heights of King Melon pricing,  delicate strawberries, easily bruised fruit and quick-to-decay mountain greens are carefully (and expensively) packaged and gently shipped to market for quick and pricey turnaround.   Fortunately, this eye to quality and reduced transport time trickles down into every day produce — the cheapest vegetables are leagues beyond US supermarket fare where the majority of vegetables available are bred for anti-bruising and spoilage resistance, often picked early and ripened in storage and shipped over thousands of miles from California and South America.  The result is a basically flavorless, less nutritious product with a massive carbon stamp.

As I have mentioned before, where I live in Tokyo is filled with farms.  One of those farms is a block away from my train station.  Day-to-day, I can see what crops are growing and what is ripening — right now it seems to be corn, strawberries, cucumbers, eggplants and the star of the show, tomatoes.  It is a premium farm — their tomatoes sell for about $20 for four.  However, in a little stand abutting the greenhouses, those same tomatoes are about $1.50.  True, they are the ugly ducklings of the harvest — odd shapes, slight discolorations, marred skin: but the flavor is the same.  They are sweet, like a fruit, but deeply tomatoey.  When I eat them I remember what a tomato tastes like.  Their texture is perfect, firm but yielding; the skin neither too thick nor too thin.  There is something smokey, an umami note in their makeup.  I have been going crazy with these tomatoes — salads with fresh corn, cucumbers, lemon, and mint; a mound of them laid over pasta with caramelized onions and eggplants; naked on a plate, gilded with olive oil, salt and basil leaves.  They are a meal unto themselves. Early summer to be savored one bite at a time.

I really do not care much about the appearance of my fruits or veggies — I actually like a weird two-tomato-in-one-conjoined-twin-thing. But these flavors…those I care about!  So, once again I find myself on the plus side of living in Japan where I can look forward to a delicious (and cheap!) summer eating the garden outcasts.


4 Replies to “Tomaters that Matter”

  1. Nice article as usual.If u reach premium tomatoes let’s try the southern spanish recipe “Salmorejo” when weather is way too hot to eat this cold soup close from Gazpacho is a top summer recipe. Enjoy.

  2. Great piece. It’s been a long time since I’ve remembered “…what a tomato tastes like.” But I knew exactly what you meant. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *