the great tomato debate


In the US, we are frequently subjected to the debate over the tomato’s status: Is it a fruit or a vegetable?

The answer, of course, is “yes.”

Because the real question is whether you are asking the question from a botanical or a culinary standpoint.

Botanically, it is unquestionably a fruit:

In botany, a fruit is a part of a flowering plant that derives from specific tissues of the flower, one or more ovaries, and in some cases accessory tissues.

But so is a bell pepper. Or zucchini. Or a butternut squash. But because these things are regularly cooked or included in savory dishes, they are considered vegetables. Culinarily, at least in the US and many European countries, tomatoes are treated as vegetables. You find them cooked into sauces and stews, roasted with garlic, or you might eat them raw, chopped up with herbs and olive oil on bruschetta. They go in the salad with lettuce and onion, not the salad with strawberries and melon.

However, in other parts of the world, the tomato’s status as a fruit is more widely accepted. I remember an occasion where we had a bit of a semester-end party on the last day of a particularly intensive class. People signed up to bring things. A guy from Korea signed up to bring some fruit, and he brought a little box of grape tomatoes, and it led to an interesting discussion.

I remembered this when we were served this dessert at the conference banquet¹ in Shanghai back in May:

The fruit salad consisted of chunks of melon, and grape tomatoes. Aside from my interest in the appearance of tomatoes in a fruit salad, it was a thoroughly disappointing dessert. Which, I suppose, was fitting.³

So, do you want to weigh in the debate?⁴

¹ Sadly, as is often the case with large-scale meals, the quality of the food was pretty mediocre. Pretty much everything I tried was bland.²

² Of course, my options were somewhat limited by my largely vegetarian diet constraints. So I didn’t partake, for example, of this soup. I did, however, appreciate that I was able to easily identify this as chicken soup. Other items that were served to us without explanation were more mysterious.

³ Did I mention the food was mediocre? The food was mediocre.

⁴ And if so, do you want to weigh in using pounds or kilograms?

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7 responses to “the great tomato debate

  1. The tomato’s fruitness or vegetableness is an issue I am pretty neutral about, though I confess I mainly *use* it as a vegetable.
    However, I had an interesting exchange with my British cousin over email about tomatoes. She said that her partner’s parents had given them a whole lot of tomatoes from their garden. Good Californian that I am, I asked what color they were. “Tomato-colored” she replied, presumably somewhat bemused by my question. I then had to explain to her that in California, that would be a very ambiguous answer, because we have tomatoes in all of the following colors: red, orange, yellow, green, purple, pink, brown, and striped. (Okay, I realized that “striped” is not a color.)
    Another tomato anecdote: My father says that his mother used to eat tomatoes with orange juice, olive oil, and salt as a snack. This strikes me as a very non-American snack (she was from Turkey and lived in the Middle East).

  2. Hi Alejna —

    Tomatoes generally taste like vegetables to me — but have you tried Japanese tomatoes? They’re amazingly sweet “as is”.

    Then there are the tomatoes covered in hard candy – a la candy apples — and sold on sticks a la hawthorn fruits, chunks of pineapple, etc. in Beijing night markets. So lovely — and fruit like! :)

  3. I am so disturbed about the idea of anything being derived from “accessory tissues” (in the botanical definition) that I can’t focus on the fruit or vegetable question. Accessory Tissues, on the prowl and muddying the water for Produce Managers everywhere. Like the Avengers, only Nameless.

  4. I think that a tomato, like life, is what you make of it. You want it to be a veggie, it is. You want it to be a fruit, so be it. In the end, what difference does it make how you classify the tomato, just as long as you use the tomato in the best way possible.

  5. bell peppers, string beans, tomatoes – all fruit. rhubarb? not a fruit.

    tomatoes for dessert? WEIRD.

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