When most of us think of tomatoes today, the first image that comes to mind is a fat, bright red orb about the size of a small orange. But tomatoes as we know them did not originally occur in nature. The wild ancestor of today’s tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum, was native to the coastal northwest regions of South America, from the Galapagos Islands up to Ecuador. And the fruit of the ancestral tomato plant was tiny — about the size of a cherry.
Plants with slightly larger fruit (about the size of today’s cherry tomatoes) are now thought to have evolved naturally in Ecuador around 80,000 years ago, and people living in the region began to cultivate them for food. Over time, tomato plants spread northward into Central America and Mexico, where more people discovered and began to domesticate them. But not only did these early tomatoes look different from their modern-day descendants.
Historically, tomatoes became popular in countries such as Italy and Mexico because they grow easily in their warm climates. But as the rest of the world came to embrace tomatoes, farmers in other parts of the world saw opportunities to cultivate and sell them as well. Because of this, the largest tomato-producing country in the world is one where tomatoes play only a minor role in the national cuisine: China, which accounts for about a quarter of the tomatoes sold worldwide (the United States and India are the second and third largest tomato producers).
China’s rise to dominance in the tomato market began in the 1990s. A private company began cultivating tomatoes in Xinjiang in 1993, joining the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps of the Chinese army as a top Chinese tomato producer. Their business, however, wasn’t driven by local demand (there was hardly any), but by the growing demand for tomatoes overseas. Almost all of China’s tomatoes are processed into tomato paste and canned for sale in Africa and Europe — so don’t expect to find locally grown heirloom tomatoes on the menu on your next trip to Beijing.