Op-Ed by Jessica Horst
Over the past few years, the rumor that Israel invented the cherry tomato has circulated the globe. While many take pride in Israel's agricultural feat, others challenge the claim to the tiny tomato. So, is Israel really the mastermind behind turning tomatoes into an enjoyable snack?
History of the Tomato Plant
Though it is unclear how tomatoes first were transported across the Atlantic, rumors began circulating the media in 2003 that Israel “invented” the cherry tomato. On a flight out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, freelance science writer based in Israel, Anna Wexler, along with many other global citizens, were presented an airplane pamphlet, "Explaining Israel,” placed in each seat magazine holder. Wexler explained that the brochure was designed to give Israelis positive conversation topics to boost the country’s reputation overseas. Printed in both Hebrew and English, the guide highlighted Israel’s technological advances, entrepreneurship, and finally, agricultural innovation and the invention of the cherry tomato. Wexler knew that the pamphlet’s claims were false and recorded her proof in an article, “Seeding Controversy: Did Israel Invent the Cherry Tomato?” published in the journal Gastronomica.
The wild tomato is postulated to have originated in the South American Andes Mountains. According to the British Tomato Growers’ Association, the tomato plant was domesticated around 700 A.D. by the Inca and Aztec communities in Mexico. These original tomatoes were tiny, pea-sized crops that grow in clusters comparable to grapes and were cultivated by the ancient agriculturalists in Central America to produce various shapes, sizes and colors of tomatoes. First descriptions of tomato “clusters in the form of cherries” exist in the book Illustrated Exposition of Plants published in 1623 by author Gaspard Bauhin. Onward, the chronological order of tomato history is unknown.
The Israeli Cherry Tomato
During the 1970s, the owner of the British grocery chain Marks & Spencer reached out to his local growers and established Israeli seed scientists to develop a new cherry tomato possessing a longer shelf-life and sweeter tastes. While the British growers began experimenting with “Gardener’s Delight” cherry tomatoes for sweetness, the Israeli scientists bred seeds intended to grow in a uniform column rather than clusters, and sustain a longer shelf-life. Successfully, the Israeli agrarian scientists from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem created a commercialized cherry tomato by introducing slow ripening genetics, though the consumers soon began demanding a sweeter taste. By breeding the cherry tomatoes to maintain a smaller shape, the Israeli scientists met demands by achieving a higher sugar concentration within the smaller fruits. Though the cherry tomato may not be an Israeli invention, the team of agrarian scientists is credited for the essential modifications that developed the fruit into the tasty treat variety popular today.
This past January 2018, Kedma, the Israeli agriculture technology company based in the southern Arava desert, announced its creation of the world’s tiniest tomato, the “tipa tomato” or “drop tomato.” Assisted by the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Center, seeds the company purchased from a Holland company were modified to withstand the dry conditions of the Israeli desert which resulted in the sweetest tasting breed of red and yellow blueberry-sized cherry tomatoes. Growers say “It just explodes in your mouth!” These tiny treats are also famed for creating the world’s sweetest tomato flavor. In a blind taste test, Tel Aviv’s “Blue Rooster” restaurant owner and chef Shaul Ben Aderet said, “they would say the tomato is a candy, that’s for sure.” Originally intended for Israeli consumption, now the breed’s international attention may lead to future exports.
While Israel cannot claim the invention of the cherry tomato, the country’s agricultural organizations do deserve admiration for their impressive selective breeding process. Unfortunately, too far away from Israel, USA customers are not on the export list due to limited shelf life. However, many travelers highly recommend giving the drop tomato and other Israeli whole foods a try when exploring abroad.
Jess is from New Holland, Pennsylvania and a senior in the Kogod School of Business. Jess is the co-founder of Student Israelity and is responsible for website management and design. As a program's assistant at the Center for Israel Studies, she has particularly developed her interest in Israel’s agricultural and sustainability practices. Now a Hasbara Fellow, Jess recently returned from a three-month stay in Israel.