The Voyage of the Tomato

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a Sherpa family in the hilly region of Nepal for about a month. It was an amazing experience that introduced me to a side of Nepal very different from Kathmandu, the side I was used to. One of the best parts about living in the village was getting to know my host sister who was both patient and continually willing to teach me about her culture and life. Although her village felt very remote at the time, I eventually learned that it had surprising connections to my own home.

My second day in the village, I went to help my Sherpa sister in her fields. She gave me a scythe, and we started cutting millet. Her cutting was quick and seamless, mine clumsy and labored. But as the sun spread through the valley in the early morning, I gained a bit of confidence and settled into the meditative field work. Maybe I was too confident because within a few minutes, the scythe had slipped and it’s sharp blade dug deep into my finger.

I looked down in horror at the white gash turning to red, but my didi reassured me. “Don’t worry. Come over here, quick,” she said to me in Nepali as she motioned for me to follow her through the waist-high stalks of millet. Once we reached the hillside, she dug through the brush until she had found a thin, red vine with leaves flanking both sides. She stripped the leaves off in one sweep, rolled them between her hands, and squeezed the green juice into the gash on my finger.

I had never used leaves to heal a cut before, so that night I looked at the wound skeptically. The next morning, however, the broken skin had almost completely closed.

As I continued to live with my host sister for that rest of that month, I learned about her use of all sorts of plants for religious purposes, as medicine, and, of course, for food.

She taught me about what they grow during the different seasons and showed me the plants they burn as incense. While I was helping out in the fields, she and the other women would point out things that grew wild but were edible, like nettle (sisnu) and a tiny, almost neon-orange, round fruit…

Fast forward about eight months: I was in North Carolina at the beach, and we went kayaking to one of the small islands off the coast. As we were trudging along the island, scanning the trees for wild horses, I looked down at the dry, sandy ground. There, nestled in it’s green, leafy shell was that little orange fruit, the same type that I had seen in my didi‘s village the year before. I picked up the nearly trampled specimen and inspected it carefully in disbelief. Both the US and Nepal grow some of the same well-known fruit (bananas, apples, oranges, etc.), but it seemed unbelievable to me to find this obscure berry on both the islands of North Carolina and in a remote village in the Himalayas.

After a quick search on the Internet, I found out that the plant is called a ground cherry, a relative of the tomato. I also learned that the tomato and related plants, which are native to the Western Hemisphere, didn’t reach Europe and Asia until explorers brought them over. The ground cherry couldn’t have been part of Nepal’s landscape for more than a few hundred years.

As I learned about the voyage of the tomato and its relatives from the new world to the old, I wondered in amazement at how intricately connected our world is. I always thought of globalization as a modern thing, something of the 20th century. Plane travel and increased migration opportunities may have sped up the process, but its been happening for much longer than the last hundred years.

Nepal used to seem like such a far away place. The village seemed especially far with no internet access and my allotted one-call-per-week back to the US. But there’s been trade and connection between the East and the West for a long time. The migration of the ground cherry and tomato from its origins in the Americas to the rest of the world may seem like a small blip in the history of things, but it’s a reminder that people have been traveling, sharing ideas, crops, and food probably for as long as we’ve been around.

It also raises a whole bunch of questions. Tomatoes are a part of the Nepali cuisine, but they’re not necessarily a main feature. Consider the chili pepper, though, which is another imported plant and an integral part of the Nepali and South Asian diet. What did South Asians eat for spice before chili peppers? Was spicy food as big a part of Nepali cuisine before they used the chili pepper in their cooking? And where did all of the Nepali names for these foods come from? golbedha (tomato), aloo (potato), khorsani (hot pepper). Are they loan words? Did they arise within the Nepali community?
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5 thoughts on “The Voyage of the Tomato

  1. for a couple of days I I lived in a Nepali village ( Khotang), its south from Solu Khumbu. In my memory I given the village the name sundala village. There was so many sundalas and so yummy. 🙂 All of them resident eaten so spicy, to spicy for me. So I eaten solely Aloo, milo and rice. 😉
    In that village peoples say to tomato……golvera.
    Sometimes when I spoke nepal ( I have a small knowledge), peoples dont unterstand me, because of different words.

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