Pink and Green: Korean Tomatoes

🍅 “I like tomato, you like tomahto… 🎶

🥔 I like potato, you like potahto.” 🎵

Or was it the other way around? 🍅🤔🥔

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? ➡️ fries🍟 = 🍚 rice ➡️ ❌ or ✅❔

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… 🤓

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” (찰토마토), 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” (대저토마토), also called “heuk tomato” (흑토마토 – black tomato) or “jjapjjari tomato” (짭짤이토마토 – 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 (방울토마토) in Korean, translating to “water drop tomato”. Occasionally, one can encounter more exotic varieties like the “green grape tomato” (cheong podo tomato 청포도토마토), 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 (카페 엘딘) 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.

💣

💥

*BOOOOM*

🤯

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” (토마토주스) – 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.”
    • 토마토주스에 설탕, 시럽이나 꿀 넣치 마세요.
      • 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 (토마토빙수) consisting of shaved ice, milk and sweet tomato puree, garnished with tomato, pepper and basil, at Tokyo Bingsu (도쿄 빙수), Seoul 2019.

Consequently, you can find tomatoes inside assortments of fruits served as sweet snacks or for dessert. 🍓🍍🍇🍏🍅 In some places, you can even find Korea’s shaved ice dessert bingsu (빙수) 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? 🍧🍅 Once, I encountered a chocolate fondue, which featured pieces of cake, cookies, ice cream and fruit. 🍫🍰🍪🍦🍓 Among those fruit, which were supposed to be dipped into molten chocolate, there were cherry tomatoes! 🍫🍅 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 everything… 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 (천은사) 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.” 🤓 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. 💚🍅❤️

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).