It was in India that I finally made my peace with the tomato. I remember the exact spot. I was sitting at a cliff-side cafe table in the southern coastal town of Varkala, gazing down on a group of boisterous Australians larking about in the rough morning waves. The undertow in this part of Kerala can be vicious, and I recall wondering who I’d alert if one of them were suddenly sucked out to sea. But as I had no answers to this, my thoughts naturally drifted towards breakfast.
By this point, I’d been in India for three months, and although I’d adored nearly every mouthful of food I’d eaten during this time, my stomach had recently taken a battering so I needed something tame. I therefore ordered a plate of something Italian-sounding, without being entirely sure what it was.
I’d always loathed tomatoes — those unforgiving, thin-skinned watery lumps that promised the sweetness of fruit but delivered no such thing. By the time I’d arrived in India, I could just about bear to eat them in combination with things I did like. Yet here I was, presented with a dish comprising of very little else. And, to my surprise, I loved every bite of it.
I can’t explain why. Perhaps my extended time abroad had altered my palate. Maybe my taste buds had suddenly matured. Or perhaps the generous helpings of garlic were enough to unlock it. But never before, or since, has a mouthful of food hit home in this way.
For the rest of that week, I had bruschetta for breakfast every day (often while watching the same group of Australians dicing with death below). And then I took the idea home — a most-unlikely Indian souvenir — where it quickly installed itself as my fall-back dish of choice.
Naturally, I’m attracted to the simplicity — a handful of tomatoes of any size or stripe, chopped small, but not too small; a bit of bread stiff enough to withstand their juices; some olive oil and a bit of balsamic; a couple of basil leaves; and enough garlic to kill a small whale (both rubbed into the bread, and thrown in among the tomatoes). And that’s it.
It can be knocked up in minutes, and requires no more focus or forethought than cheese on toast or a ham sandwich. Yet, unlike those things, it always tastes of good living, of smart decision-making. And its garlicky aftertaste lingers for hours, challenging you to do better with each subsequent meal. No matter how tired I am, if I can still taste that tomato-ey tang from a breakfast bruschetta, it’s far less likely I’ll reach for the oven chips.
Of course, bruschetta is really an antipasto — and while for me it’ll always be a breakfast or brunch dish, it’s hardly a hearty one. Plus, like most things, it can get a bit repetitive — something the substitution of red tomatoes for yellow ones only partially addresses.
I’m not saying its perfect. I’m simply saying it’s the dish that’s served me best, the one that’s added most to my life. And, though quintessentially Italian, it will forever remind me of India. And, perhaps, a little bit of Australia, too.