The tomato belongs to a large group of plants of the nightshade family. Its cousins include potatoes, aubergines and bell peppers, all popular ingredients in China.
No one can pinpoint the exact dates these vegetables were introduced to China, but the general consensus is that they came through both the overland and maritime trade routes. The national output of fresh tomatoes for 2017 is estimated at more than 56 mln mt.
There is a chicken dish cooked by the Uyghurs in the north-western entry point of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region that combines almost all of them. Known as “big pan chicken” or dapanji, it is a rich, tomato-based stew with chunks of potatoes, lots of onions and plenty of bell peppers. That probably gives us a hint on the early beginnings.
Good ingredients are treasured by Chinese chefs who often go out of their comfort zones to seek them out. Foreign imports such as potatoes are now staples, and the chili pepper, too, has been naturalised.
The tomato’s brilliant colour and natural umami flavour have made it another essential ingredient. In fact, the classic sweet and sour dishes of southern China now depend mainly on the tomato, where it used to be the hawthorn fruit that coloured and flavoured in the past.
It used to be harvested only in summer, although it is now available all year round, thanks to bigger, better greenhouses and a countrywide logistics network that connects north to south and east to west. Xinjiang is currently by far the largest production region of tomatoes in China. This product has become so important, that China has started investing in tomato production in neighbouring Kazakhstan.
The northern Chinese mainly consume tomatoes raw, in thin slices liberally covered with caster sugar. More than a few Europeans have to grow accustomed to eating sweetened tomatoes. The most favoured hot dish with tomatoes is tomatoes with scrambled eggs (xihongshi chao jidan), which is everybody’s favourite. I used to travel in China with a Dutch client who was not a lover of Chinese stir fried dishes, but he did like scrambled eggs with tomatoes.
Tomatoes are now used to stuff dumplings, pairing with such stronger-tasting meats like beef and lamb, and is cooked down to a sauce for hand-cut noodles. It is not only used to accompany noodles, but is actually worked into the noodles themselves, like spinach.
The love of tomato-flavoured stews in north-eastern China can also be traced to the Russian influence of the past. For certain older generations, the only Western restaurants in the capital at that time served Russian food. For them, Russian food meant a strongly tomato-flavoured borscht, a hearty tomato and beef stew and minced-meat-stuffed cabbage rolls slowly stewed in a thick tomato sauce. That was the pinnacle of gourmet eating in restaurants with names like Old Moscow, or Kiev.
Times have changed. Modern Beijingers still love their tomatoes, but they are more likely to consume them as pizza sauce or over spaghetti. Modern chefs, many coming from overseas, have also introduced other new ways of eating tomatoes.
The top industrial tomato product is tomato paste. If your mind connects tomato paste with Italy and Italian cuisine, you need to update your settings. China, in particular Xinjiang, has the world’s prime production region for tomato paste for a number of years. Several Italian companies import it in bulk an can the Chinese product in Italy, to export again as a ‘typically’ Italian product. However, the exports of tomato paste have been dropping, partly due to adverse weather conditions and partly to regional protectionism that is on the rise globally. China has exported appr. 852,000 mt of tomato paste in 2017. That is considerably lower than the top year 2011, when China exported 1,128,459 mt.
Although exported could increase again, the Chinese tomato processing industry needs to look for tomato-based ingredients with a higher added value. One such product is lycopene. It is offered as a dietary supplement claiming to aid the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and prostate cancer.
A good indication of the current situation of any food ingredient in China is looking at the participants of the Food Ingredients China (FIC) 2018 trade fair (March 22 – 24, Shanghai). The following table shows exhibitors of various tomato-based products at that fair.
It seems that suppliers of tomato paste or dried tomatoes do not regard FIC as their typical trade fair. However, FIC is clearly the place to look for tomato powder and lycopene.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.