It's Not a Tomato; It's an Idea of a Tomato

When did our food choices become so complex? From a society of people who spent majority of their time hunting, gathering, fishing and then turning their daily haul into simple delicious meals - to the society of people today who are navigating aisles and aisles of highly processed supermarket foods, packaged with attractive colorful labels and a long non-pronounceable ingredient list. Between food industrialization, clever food marketing and food lobbyists, collectively I fear we have given very little thought to what this ready-to-eat culture is doing to our own planet, society and our long-term health and well-being.

"It's not a tomato; it's an idea of a tomato" it's a tagline by one of my favorite authors Michael Pollan from an old food documentary Food Inc. that struck a deep cord with me. He was explaining how the supermarket culture is erasing the seasons and the meaning of seasonal produce. Now a days most fruits and vegetables are available year long - shipped from across the globe preserved in ethylene just so it's available all the time. Such a year-long tomato is picked when it's still green, preserved, artificial ripened and packaged carefully and shipped for thousands of miles - what it does to the taste of the food is quite imaginable. If you have tasted a fresh tomato picked from garden or from a local farmer's market, you know what they mean when they say that you don't know how a tomato tastes like until you pick one fresh off the vine yourself! What you find in supermarkets year-around is something that sure looks like tomato, is called a tomato but in reality is just an idea of a tomato - a notional tomato.

What prompted all these thoughts? I visited a super-market recently to buy milk for my daughter. As the usual readers of Ginger & Garlic know, we have switched over to eating local produce and minimally processed foods in our household. Some weeks are better than others towards this goal and this was one of the weeks where we had just come back from vacation and the grocery-shopping schedules were off.

So anyway, I am in the milk aisle looking for organic whole-milk. I see one priced at $5.99 and right next to it is a plain regular whole-milk priced at $2.49. I picked the organic one. Right next to me was an old lady from Greece (she told later) who was visiting family in the area. She was curious why I bought $6 milk instead of the cheaper one. As I explained to her the whole business of organic versus non-organic and why for my daughter I don't mind paying extra bucks for organic and saw the incredulity on her face - I wondered  how did we get here? 

As I was growing up in India in a small town "organic" was the norm or I should non-organic did not exist. The cowman of the village neither fed his cows highly processed corn and soy nor did he inject them with growth boosting stuff. It was just plain old natural milk (albeit a bit diluted with water at times). Now with many engineered profit-boosting means readily available, the non-organic milk is the one omnipresent and so very cheap - while the old "regular", the natural one is the one we have to pay hefty premium for.. so strange!

I have been reading a lot recently about food industrialization. How the history of agricultural and food policies of post world war II era helped create this culture of highly processed foods, animal factories and ready-to-eat everything. As a result today an American household spends merely 31mins on average prepping meals including clean-ups (source: an excellent article from Michael Pollan). While processed food revolution has had a great impact in making food accessible to everyone (one of the main reasons for it's invention), I worry we have minimal data to the health-impacts of highly processed, shelved foods.

As a mom of a one-year old I think a lot of what to put on table, where the food is coming from, is it sustainable, fresh, free from all the genetic modifications, pesticides and growth induced drugs. Sometimes it scares me a lot where our food culture is going to take us.

Anyway, enough of the serious thoughts - now coming back to this recipe, it's a simple gajar ka halwa or gajaracha sheera as we call it in Marathi. It's an Indian dessert made with carrots, milk and sugar. Recipe is very simple. You can serve it cold or warm - it's sure to be crowd pleaser!
Serves 2
6 small carrots - or 3C finely grated carrots
1C milk
2tsp butter
6Tbsp sugar
3 cardamoms (or a pinch of cardamom powder)
Garnish: dried cranberries, chopped roasted almonds or a pinch of saffron
  • Finely grate carrots and set aside.
  • Heat butter in a small pan and add grated carrots to it.
  • Cook carrots in butter for a couple of minutes.
  • Then add milk. Cover and let cook until all the milk is absorbed.
  • Then add sugar, cardamom powder and cook uncovered on low heat until you achieve desired thickness.
  • Garnish with dried cranberries, chopped roasted almonds or a pinch of saffron.


Priya Suresh said…
Wat a delightful and beautiful sweet.
indosungod said…
PJ I read an article where a farmer was explaining why the tomatoes because he is forced to grow produce more for its prettiness than taste. Have you ever seen a mishaped tomato or an apple in a grocery store? Probably not. Those of us who are hobby gardeners know that no two tomatoes look the same nor have the same color. Organice produce are no better when it comes to marketing meaning they are still too perfect. Notional tomato is the right word.

The misshapen tomato does not lack in taste in any way. I actually quite like those because they have some character.

As for this carrot halwa looks delicious. I always buy my carrots from the Amish market, even the kids can tell the difference when they are from the supermarket - tasteless.
Nupur said…
That's the crazy thing- people don't realize that with cheap food, you're not getting a bargain but paying a heavy price in terms of environmental impact, health impact and so much more. Better to buy high quality food and eat less of it, waste none.
manu said…
looks so delicious!
Preeti Kashyap said…
Absolutely true!!! All we are having is an idea of food...not the real thing! I loved Food. INC as well. We but all veggies from local market as well....and MILK is absolutely organic!!!Awesome post PJ!!!
PS:- Carrot halwa is my fav and I am on a diet!!! Damn!