China and tomatoes aren't often associated with each other. The vegetable (or fruit, as some insist) is the staple of Italian and Latino cuisines, and only in the last century has it been appearing in Chinese meals.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that China is the largest tomato grower in the world, a distinction it has held since 1995, when it overtook the U.S., according to The Wall Street Journal.
They are also the most valuable crop in the world, and for China, second only to rice as the most profitable.
The tomato, a New World plant that scientists believe evolved in the prehistoric rainforests of Central America, was cultivated by the Aztecs and eventually brought to Europe by the Conquistadors, has been suffering from its popularity.
Overbred or overproduced, they have been pushed to be bigger in size but in the process have been losing their flavor. Breeders aim for tomatoes that resist disease, have longer shelf life and don't burst open on the vine after heavy rains.
Now a research project led by University of Florida horticulturist Harry Klee and Sanwen Huang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and one of China's pre-eminent plant geneticists, is helping growers retrieve good taste. Huang calls it "the genetics of flavor".
In a paper appearing in the latest edition of Science, Klee and Huang map out the tomato's genetic formula.
Funded in large part by China, the study asked 500 "sensory panelists" to rate the flavor of 400 varieties of tomato, dozens of which were from China. Huang told the Journal that some of the Chinese cultivars did better than average, "but most of them were not so good".
The scientists then spent three years creating a genetic map of all the factors that go into making a tasty tomato.
In his quest to find the greatest tomato, Klee has grown more than 400 types of heirloom tomatoes over the past 20 years, each rated by taste testers.
In 2011, he took the highest-rated tomato he had — the Maglia Rosa, which was difficult to cultivate — and crossbred it with a commercial moneymaker called Fla. 8059, which grew like a weed but tasted like mush. The result was a winner. Long shelf life, disease resistant, doesn't bruise in shipping and cranks out 22 pounds per plant — and tasted delicious. Klee named it the Garden Gem and his army of taste panelists at the University of Florida dubbed it among the best tomatoes they have ever tasted.
You'd think tomato growers would be beating a path to his door for some seeds, but old ways are hard to change. Most growers are still more concerned with size, yield, uniformity, color and ease of harvest.
Huang told the Journal that better tasting tomatoes was more than just a breakthrough that would help business. For him, it was something personal on behalf of his fellow Chinese.
"Unlike Americans, we don't eat a lot of pasta sauce or ketchup," he said. "Mostly we stir fry them or eat them fresh, so flavor is a major concern. People complain that tomatoes are not as tasty as before."
Healthwise, tomatoes have long held the title of "superfood", an anti-oxidant powerhouse credited with preventing some cancers and lowering cholesterol.
Researchers at the universities of Manchester and Newcastle in England say they have evidence that tomatoes also protect against sunburn and can make you look younger by boosting collagen — the protein that keeps skin from sagging.
Tomatoes also safeguard human's mitochondria, the cellular mechanisms that convert food into energy.
"Being kind to our mitochondria is likely to contribute to improved skin health, which in turn may have an anti-ageing effect," said Newcastle University professor Mark Birch-Machin.
It only makes sense to make such potent medicine as tasty as possible.