The tomato, fruit or vegetable?
There is a tendency to classify the tomato as a vegetable, particularly in gastronomy where tomatoes are typically prepared and served in dishes with a salty taste profile. Indeed, it is quite rare, but not impossible, to find tomatoes in a sugary dish, such as a dessert, sweet flavours being typically associated with fruits.
The culinary definition is however not the only one we should concern ourselves with when considering whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, and it would make more sense to turn to botany for an answer.
Despite there not being a consensus among the scientific community, the most widely accepted definition of the vegetable is any edible part of a plant, whether it be its roots, stalks, tubers, leaves, seeds and even… its fruits! Carrot, turnip, potato, beet or even rhubarb would therefore all qualify as vegetables according to this definition.
The fruit, on the other end, is characterized as a plant organ that contains the seeds of the plant, and whose role is to protect them until they can be disseminated. The fruit succeeds to the flower in the plant’s life and reproductive cycles.
The tomato, which contains seeds, would therefore be both a fruit and a vegetable!
In that respect, eggplants, cucumbers, sweet and hot peppers as well as zucchinis – all good culinary partners to the tomato – are all fruits, as they contain at least one seed that can serve in the reproduction of the plant they’re a part of. Many of them, notably the eggplant, the sweet pepper as well as the tomato, our favourite, are also considered berries. Indeed, a berry is a fruit that’s typically fleshy and juicy, and that carries its seeds on the inside. It further has the specificity of being indehiscent, which means that its epicarp (its skin) does not split naturally during the growth cycle to spill the plants’ seeds and support the sprouting process.
Against all odds, the strawberry, Quebec’s darling, is wrongly classified as both a berry and a fruit. The strawberry is in fact the prolongation of the strawberry plant’s flower stalk, making it what we call an accessory fruit. It is an ancillary portion of the flower that persists once the flower has terminated its lifecycle. It would instead be the achenes, those small whitish seeds on the surface of the strawberry that so often get stuck in our teeth, that would be the real fruits of the strawberry plant!
Accordingly, it’s important not to focus solely on the often-misleading taste profile of produce to determine its classification, but rather on its function and attributes on the plant.