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You Say To-May-To, and I say To-Mah-To, But Why?

Tomato and basil are one of the most iconic flavor combos associated with Italian cuisine, but did you know that neither tomatoes nor basil originally came from Italy?

References to basil date back 5,000 years to its native homes of India, southeast Asia, and central Africa. Due to Europe’s land connection to these areas, Italy was able to fall in love with basil back in 350 BC. It would however take much longer for the tomato to find its way into this iconic duo.

Person handling tomatoes

The wild ancestor of today’s tomato grew in the South American Andes mountains and was domesticated by the Aztecs in what is now Mexico. The interesting history of the tomato goes deeper though!

You may have heard the phrase “You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to,” and as silly as to-mah-to sounds to us now in the U.S., the origins of the name favor this pronunciation!

The word tomato in English begins with the word tomatl (pronounced to-mah-tul, think about the tl in the word subtlety) in the Nahuatl language of the Aztec people.

When the Spanish colonized parts of the Americas, they were introduced to tomatoes and the Nahuatl word for them. In bringing back the fruit to Europe, the Spanish changed the name to tomate (pronounced to-mah-te) to better fit their own linguistic rules.

The English initially referred to tomatoes as love-apples and grew them only ornamentally, eventually the name tomato came around, just like the English and American love for the fruit.

While the English held onto the Nahuatl influenced to-mah-to, those who colonized and formed the United States and Canada changed the pronunciation to align with the pronunciation of potato, an older word in the English language due to its arrival to England from the Americas before the tomato, and to the immediate love that those of the British Isles held for it.

So, I suppose that you might say to-may-to or to-mah-to, but we can all agree that po-tay-toes are not po-tah-toes, and that both are absolutely delicious.

 With deep appreciation for the tomato, its origins, and all of its nutritious flavor, we would like to share this recipe for tomato basil fried rice.

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