Pink and Green: Korean Tomatoes

๐Ÿ… “I like tomato, you like tomahto… ๐ŸŽถ

๐Ÿฅ” I like potato, you like potahto.” ๐ŸŽต

Or was it the other way around? ๐Ÿ…๐Ÿค”๐Ÿฅ”

Who decides what’s correct and what is not when it comes to tomatoes and potatoes, anyways. Despite pronunciation,* there are also disputes regarding the classification of these two food items. Is a tomato a fruit? Or is it a vegetable? Is a potato a vegetable? Or is it more than that, considering it is a staple just like bread, noodles or rice in many countries other than Korea? โžก๏ธ fries๐ŸŸ = ๐Ÿš rice โžก๏ธ โŒ or โœ…โ”

Moreover, is there even such a thing as the “right” way of consuming them? In a previous post, I’ve introduced you to the Korean way of eating potatoes. Now, let’s take a look at tomatoes in Korea… ๐Ÿค“

Boxes of “chal tomatoes” on sale at a grocery store in Seoul, July 2019.

The first thing you will notice is that they look different. Today, there exists such a diversity of tomatoes all over the world. In Korea, many tomatoes are pink or green or even both! One of the most common varieties is the “chal tomato” (์ฐฐํ† ๋งˆํ† ), which is pinkish and somewhat green. Apart from the color, they are similar in size and shape to the regular, bright orange-red tomatoes, which are familiar in Western cuisines. But these Korean tomatoes taste less tart and have a dry, almost grainy texture when consumed raw. Then there’s also the dark green “daejeo tomato” (๋Œ€์ €ํ† ๋งˆํ† ), also called “heuk tomato” (ํ‘ํ† ๋งˆํ†  – black tomato) or “jjapjjari tomato” (์งญ์งค์ดํ† ๋งˆํ†  – lit. ‘salty tomato’), hinting at characteristics of this kind of breed. But there exist also global varieties such as the small but popular cherry tomato which is called bang-ul tomato (๋ฐฉ์šธํ† ๋งˆํ† ) in Korean, translating to “water drop tomato”. Occasionally, one can encounter more exotic varieties like the “green grape tomato” (cheong podo tomato ์ฒญํฌ๋„ํ† ๋งˆํ† ), which supposedly creates good eating sounds (ASMR).

Let’s move on towards how to eat tomatoes. If you are convinced that tomatoes are vegetables and you drink your tomato juice with salt and pepper (maybe even hot chili flakes or Tabasco!), then you must have grown up in the so-called Western world.

Freshly blended tomato juice at Cafe Eldyn (์นดํŽ˜ ์—˜๋”˜) in Hwaseong 2019.

If you then have tomatoes in an East Asian country such as China or Korea, you will be shocked. Because there, tomatoes are naturally seasoned with sugar. Or sugar syrup. Or honey.

๐Ÿ’ฃ

๐Ÿ’ฅ

*BOOOOM*

๐Ÿคฏ

Why?????????????????????????????????????????????

You might ask yourself after the initial shock vanishes, allowing your brain to work again.

This happens to me all the time whenever I order fresh tomato juice and forget to mention that I don’t want my serving to be sweetened. In most Korean coffee shops or juice bars, the basic recipe for “tomato juice” (ํ† ๋งˆํ† ์ฃผ์Šค) – which is actually more like a smoothie – is blending fresh tomatoes with water and sugar syrup. And more fancy variations feature honey instead of syrup. Either way, unless you interfere, the tomato drink will automatically be served sweet. But if YOU personally prefer tomato juice without any sweetener at all, you could use the following sentence upon ordering:

  • “Please do not add sugar, syrup or honey into my tomato juice.”
    • ํ† ๋งˆํ† ์ฃผ์Šค์— ์„คํƒ•, ์‹œ๋Ÿฝ์ด๋‚˜ ๊ฟ€ ๋„ฃ์น˜ ๋งˆ์„ธ์š”.
      • Tomato juseu-e seoultang, sireopina kkul neochi maseoyo.

This should arrange for you to be served plain tomato juice, and it gives you the chance to enjoy it the way you like it – be that pure or savory with added salt, Tabasco … you name it! If you get pre-made tomato juice from a supermarket or a convenience store, however, even your freshly acquired Korean skills cannot do much. The tomato juice is most likely going to taste sweet. You could still use your language skills to check the label before purchasing it. And then, it’s your choice of accepting the novel taste or avoiding it altogether.

Anyways, I guess the answer to the big question of WHY is that in Korea, they consider tomatoes as fruit.

Cherry tomatoes and green grapes in a fruit snack box from a Korean convenience store.
Tomato Bingsu (ํ† ๋งˆํ† ๋น™์ˆ˜) consisting of shaved ice, milk and sweet tomato puree, garnished with tomato, pepper and basil, at Tokyo Bingsu (๋„์ฟ„ ๋น™์ˆ˜), Seoul 2019.

Consequently, you can find tomatoes inside assortments of fruits served as sweet snacks or for dessert. ๐Ÿ“๐Ÿ๐Ÿ‡๐Ÿ๐Ÿ… In some places, you can even find Korea’s shaved ice dessert bingsu (๋น™์ˆ˜) with tomatoes as topping: Sweet milk -frozen and shaved into fluffy, snowflake-like ice crystals which instantly melt in your mouth – is garnished with the slightly tangy flavor of sweetened tomatoes and pink tomato sauce. Yuck or yum? ๐Ÿง๐Ÿ… Once, I encountered a chocolate fondue, which featured pieces of cake, cookies, ice cream and fruit. ๐Ÿซ๐Ÿฐ๐Ÿช๐Ÿฆ๐Ÿ“ Among those fruit, which were supposed to be dipped into molten chocolate, there were cherry tomatoes! ๐Ÿซ๐Ÿ… I leave the taste up for your own imagination. Back then, I was too appalled that I did not dare trying it and instead watched (half in horror, half in curiosity) my sister eat everythingโ€ฆ In hindsight and perhaps with a few more years of ‘life experience’, I am thinking, it couldn’t have been thaaaat bad. After all, everything tastes good with chocolate, right? [Still, I am not willing to cook this up for myself, just to give it another shot!]

Other instances illustrating how tomatoes are considered fruit in Korean culture can be discovered during ancestral rites or at Buddhist temples. On certain occasions, fruit and other valuable delicacies are traditionally offered to deceased spirits and deities. There, you can sometimes encounter tomatoes artfully stacked, next to towers of other types of fruit such as apples, melons, grapes, bananas, oranges, tangerines and pears.

Offerings of fruit in front of a devotional image at Buddhist temple Cheoneunsa (์ฒœ์€์‚ฌ) in Gurye, Jeollanam-do.
[Detail] Large tomatoes as a devotional offering inside a Buddhist temple hall.

The know-it-all says: “Botanically, tomatoes are indeed fruit. They are the seed bearing fruits of tomato plants.” ๐Ÿค“ Following the same logic, also cucumbers and eggplants are fruits. Why don’t we eat those sweetened for dessert? [Seriously, why not?]

I have no answer to the last question above. Do you? I would love to hear some explanations. I would also love to hear, how you enjoy tomatoes. Sweet or savory? Fresh or cooked? Red or green? Maybe you know of some other country’s exotic way with tomatoes? My only conclusion here is that tomatoes, however we may classify them, are diverse and fascinating. ๐Ÿ’š๐Ÿ…โค๏ธ

Notes by the author

*) Above quote is a reference to the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in the movie Shall We Dance (1937).

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3 thoughts on “Pink and Green: Korean Tomatoes

  1. Loved the song reference to one of my favourite Gershwin classics. Well there all favourites of mine, especially when interpreted by Louis or Ella, or even better both of them! โค๏ธ
    India has a lot of sweet tomato recipes, too. Like tomato jam. Strange taste in the beginning but also kinda cool. So I would definitely wanna try Korean style.

    Thanks for the fun read! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

      1. It was at a restaurant in the states. They said it was authentic Indian food, though. I donโ€™t remember which region, however.
        I had it as appetizer with mango chutney and naan bread. There was a spicy and a sweet blend. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

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