I think that a lot of what is going on back in North America in terms of food, registers somewhere in my radar. I am wise to, at least, the deliciousness, nutritiousness (and political incorrectness) of quinoa, the low-glycemic (maybe) sweetening power of agave nectar, and that people really like cupcakes and bacon in any and all forms and permutations, even together.
Since living in Japan, I have seen a few food fads come and go without getting too excited. Black food (sesame, squid ink, etc), gold flake, and konyaku have all seen there day, but I wasn’t inspired. There is something that I have noticed from possibly as far back as a couple years, and that is tomato. Particularly as a featured ingredient in sweets, tomato is big in Japan. It probably first caught my attention as just plain odd, or straight-up unappetizing when I saw it starting to appear as a pudding or cake in the trendy Daikanyama neighbourhood where I used to live. I actually LOVE tomatoes, always have, but I am a bit of a purist. I prefer my tomatoes raw, or sauced. When I was in elementary school, my mom used to pack a beautiful fresh tomato wrapped in a paper towel in my lunch box and I would eat it as a handfruit (see Seinfeld). In grade four, the kids in my class called it my daily tomato and would ask me where it was if I focused on eating other things in my lunchbox first. OK, I like tomatoes. Now, after at least two years of being hip, the tomato is really starting to go mainstream-cool because I am seeing more and more of it, not just in cakes, but in mass produced chocolates and drinks, the markers of Japan’s ever changing food industry. The tomato has even crossed over from edible treats to beauty product; I picked up some tomato hand cream recently, and I really like. Also, sometime within the past year, I saw a tomato recipe contest for home cooks on a TV show.
Why do Japanese people care so much about tomatoes? There are, after all, so many other things to dip in chocolate, why bother with tomatoes? Apparently it’s the lycopene. Lycopene is the pigment that gives tomatoes and some other fruits their red colour. It is also an antioxidant and is linked with reduced rates of some cancers, particularly prostate cancer. Nifty! I wonder why all these sweets and chocolates are marketed to women. Is there something feminine about the tomato? I recall the sun-dried tomato trend that rocked the 90s in North America. I was really never into them, but I remember my mom was always trying to get them included in the toppings on pizza.
I have tried several tomato concoctions in Tokyo. At a gourmet-ish veggie restaurant in Ebisu, the meal’s final course was a kind of tomato pudding which was, as you might expect, nasty. I also had a really amazing early tomato-boom experience at another restaurant in Ebisu. After eating some tom yan koon that gave us fire-mouth, we were served, courtesy of the cook, what I can only describe as maraschino tomatoes, to help clear the spice and end the suffering. These maraschino tomatoes were about 1”-1.5” in diameter, and they were cooked, but served cold and extremely sweet. They were heavenly. In nicer convenience stores, like Natural Lawson these days you can also find white chocolate or milk chocolate covered dried tomatoes. These are nothing like salty sun-dried tomatoes, but more like super sweetened dried cranberries. These are both delicious, but not very tomatoey. The milk chocolate one feels like eating a giant glosette raisin.
There is also actual tomato chocolate, which my friend Andrew says tastes like white chocolate with tomato paste in it, which is probably exactly what it is, and I didn’t bother buying that one. The store I went to had a whole “tomato juice corner” in the drink case, because I guess you really need to try this stuff. Today I also saw a housewares store selling “tomato soup bowls” which looked very tomato-y indeed. I think that we can declare the tomato sweets trend full-blown once the tomato flavoured KitKat is released. It should only be a matter of months now.