Until I arrived in Kodaikanal about three years ago, I did not know tomatoes grew on trees. I was under the impression that there were predominantly two kinds of thakali—regular, and cherry —both of which grew on delicate plants with pretty, serrated leaves and butter-yellow flowers. So, what was this maroon, mottled, egg-shaped fruit that every fruit vendor in Kodaikanal was selling? How did one eat it? And why, I wondered, hadn’t I heard of it before?
‘Tree tomato ma,’ I was told, in a kindly but no-nonsense tone that swiftly conveyed that I was the strange one, not the blessed fruit. Suitably chastised, I grinned at the fruit-selling matriarch, bought a bag, and went home to have my first taste.
It was unlike any tomato I had eaten before: sour, sweet, and fruity in an entirely unfamiliar way, like a cross between a tomato, peach, and guava.
With a plate by my side, and views of the mist wafting in and out of the valley, I read about the many names of the tree tomato: Mare thakali in Tamil Nadu, tamarillo in the west, and Solanum betaceum in scientific circles. I found that the fruit grows abundantly in hillier parts of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Assam, Uttaranchal, Nagaland, and Himachal Pradesh, in addition to Tamil Nadu—the Nagaland state government even has a Geographical Indication tag for a variety, as of 2015.
There are two types of tree tomato in India: the dark red version that we see around Kodaikanal, and a yellow variety that is allegedly sweeter, and found around the Nilgiri Hills. Both have a thick outer skin that is edible, but not particularly palatable (it has a bitter taste). The ripe fruit can be eaten raw as well as cooked, and the unripe version can be consumed cooked, like a vegetable.
Each cuisine uses it differently. In Nagaland, the tomato is smoked on the fire, and then mashed with chillies, onions, coriander, and pungent mustard oil. In Uttarakhand, the fruit is cooked with a rock salt, jaggery, chilli flakes, and vinegar to make a sweet-and-savoury relish that is eaten with parathas, and in Tamil Nadu, the fruit is used to make chutney and rasam.
Curious to see if I could grow tree tomatoes in my garden, I did some more digging. From a research paper published by Dindigul’s Gandhigram Rural Institute, I learned that Solanum betaceum is a “small tree which grows to about 3 metres high, native to the Andes region of Peru, and has been cultivated in other parts of the world, such as Sri Lanka, India, the South East Asian Archipelago and in New Zealand.” Most importantly, it grows between an altitude of 1000 and 7,500 ft (300m – 2,133m) in India. Perfect for the Palani Hills!
At first, we ate our tree tomatoes predominantly in salads, with peppery rocket leaves, toasted melon seeds, crumbled paneer, and a punchy honey-mustard dressing. Then, I began adding it to dosa-chutney instead of regular tomatoes, which was an instant hit, and in the week preceding this article, I have tried making tree tomato jam, squash, jelly, bread pudding, and crumble.
We now have two trees in our garden, grown from cuttings generously shared by neighbours from the village. They were about knee-high when we planted them at the start of the pandemic, in March 2020; they are now over seven feet tall with bunches of small, green fruit hanging like baubles. I look forward to our first harvest, but until then, I delight in the softness of their leaves (they’re like tissue paper!), the little white flowers, and the fact that there are plenty of tree tomatoes selling all over Kodaikanal. These are the recipes I found worthy of sharing.
Naga-inspired Tree Tomato Relish
Serves 2 to 3
This fresh, spicy, smoky chutney pairs well with sandwiches, pulaos, tacos, even scrambled eggs and toast!
- Tree tomatoes – 5
- Green chillies – 3
- Coriander – one fistful
- Onion – 1 small, chopped
- Mustard oil – 1 tbsp
- Char the chillies on a naked flame, until they are blistered and black on the outside. Chop and set aside.
- Next, place the tree tomatoes on a naked flame; turn occasionally until the outside skin is completely black and charred. Once they are cool enough to handle, remove the burnt skin, roughly chop and set aside.
- Place the tree tomato, chilli, chopped onion and coriander in a mixer grinder. (The chutney is traditionally made with a mortar pestle, but I’m not always up to the workout.) Add salt to taste, and pulse for a few seconds. Don’t grind it too much – you want a coarse texture as opposed to a smooth chutney.
- Transfer into a serving bowl, add the raw mustard oil, and serve at room temperature or chilled. I like the smoky taste of mustard oil, but feel free to skip the oil if it isn’t to your liking.
Tree Tomato and Coconut Chutney
Serves 2 to 3
Pairs well with dosa, idli, adai, even hot rice with a dollop of ghee
- Tree tomatoes – 5
- Fresh coconut, grated – 1/3 cup
- Onion, sliced – 1
- Ginger, peeled, sliced – 1 inch
- Dried red chilli, broken in half – 1 or 2, depending on spice levels
- Coriander – a few sprigs
- Sugar – 1 tsp
- Oil – 1 tbsp
- Salt to taste
- Blanch tree tomatoes by placing the fruit in boiling water for a minute. Remove and plunge into water (room temperature). This will help separate skin from flesh, making it easy to peel. Discard the skin.
Cut the tree tomatoes in half, and take a moment to marvel at the beautiful colours―jewel tones through and through! Spoon out the seeds and throw them in a sunny patch of soil in your backyard; tree tomatoes are resilient plants that produce prolifically when given proper nourishment. You could have home grown fruit in less than two years (less than one year if you can score a cutting from a friend who has a mature tree)!
But back to the recipe.
2. Roughly chop the tree tomatoes, and set aside.
3. Heat oil in a medium sized pan/kadai.
4. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the ginger, onions, and red chilli. Sauté until the onions start to turn colour.
5. Add the tree tomatoes, a pinch of salt, and 1 tsp sugar.
6. Cover and cook, for about 5 minutes, until the tomatoes are mushy.
7. Switch off the gas, and transfer to a mixer-grinder.
8. Add coconut, coriander, and salt to taste. Blend until the mixture attains the texture of chutney, adding small amounts of water as needed. If the chutney is too sour, add a little more sugar and salt to balance the flavours.
9. Voila! You’re done.
Optional add-on: Garnish with a tempering of mustard seeds, split urad dal, and curry leaves, for added texture.
Tree Tomato Jam
Tree tomatoes have a high pectin content and work wonderfully for preserves. It takes a little over half an hour to make this jam, and it keeps in the fridge for at least one week. The higher the sugar content, the longer the jam will keep.
- Tree tomatoes – 250 gm (weighed with skin)
- Sugar – 100 gm
- Blanch tree tomatoes by placing the fruit in boiling water for a minute. Remove and plunge into water (at room temperature); this will help separate skin from flesh, making it easy to peel. Discard the skin.
- Roughly chop the tree tomatoes (no need to deseed) and place in a saucepan with a splash of water.
- Cover and cook on medium-low heat until the fruit turns to mush. This should take about ten minutes.
- Remove the lid, add sugar, and continue to cook on a low flame for another 15-20 minutes, or until the mixture attains the consistency of jam.
- Transfer the jam into a sterilised bottle with a clean, dry spoon. Close, cool, and refrigerate.
This jam is delicious with buttered bread, sour cream, whipped cream, vanilla ice-cream, even cocktails! I sometimes add a spoon of tree tomato jam to salad dressings (instead of honey) for a fruity kick.
All images courtesy of the author