"Tomato is the best cook," my grandmother used to say. She meant that by simply adding it to any food, tomato had the power to make a simple dish extraordinary. Her belief was shared by many enthusiastic cooks, who at the end of the 19th century adopted the New World vegetable/fruit and made it an essential ingredient of Greek cuisine.
In my previous post about moussaka, I mentioned the early use of tomato in the beginning of the 1900s, and a reader expressed disbelief in his comment: "what about the fact that tomatoes didn't exist in Greece until around the 1600's? How far back is enough for a food culture?" I think he meant what happened between 1600, when Columbus brought tomatoes to Europe, and the end of the 19th century—or more accurately the beginning of the 20th, when the use of tomatoes finally spread all over Greece.
Here I will try to answer his question.
Peasant ingredient-based cuisines, like Greek cuisine and most cuisines of the southern Mediterranean, stubbornly stick to regional traditions and change very slowly. Home cooks make the most of their seasonal and local products, and they are reluctant to adopt new ingredients and ideas. I understand that it is difficult to believe that tomatoes only started to become part of the Greek table in the late 19th century. Greeks and foreigners alike wonder how one could cook the summer ladera, the ubiquitous vegetable stews—made with green beans, okra, eggplants, or zucchini—without tomatoes. In all these dishes the slightly acidic tomatoes perfectly balance the fruity and assertive Greek olive oil. It is a marriage of flavors that today we take for granted. The late adoption also partly explains why some Greek cooks tend to over-use tomatoes, often covering all other flavors with a thick, oily red sauce.