Over the past summer, I was listlessly wandering the supermarket basement of Sogo, a Japanese department store in Hong Kong. The store entrance was a rendezvous point for a friend who was running late, and I took the opportunity to browse the produce aisles while I waited. Hong Kong is a city that imports most of its food, and grocery stores there have such an international variety that they may as well serve as poster children for globalization. I meandered around Spanish romaine lettuces, French chanterelle mushrooms, Kenyan sugar peas and Thai baby corn before coming to an abrupt stop at a pile of familiar red boxes labelled ‘高糖度’ (high sugar content) attached to an exorbitant price tag. At the sight of those red boxes of tomatoes, I was whisked away to a particular moment in my mother’s kitchen in Karuizawa, Japan.
My mother’s home was a place of peace. The dappled light in our house would filter through our windows and dance with trees that moved in the wind. There was a unique kind of restorative power to waking up warm on a winter morning to peer out into the silent snow-covered forest outside our frosted windows, the fireplace still smouldering from the flames of the night before. When my brother and I would go home, we slept on the tatami floors on futons.
My mother loved to go on walks. She would go twice a day like clockwork—at the asscrack of dawn and then again at midday, dog in tow and, occasionally, beleaguered kids in tow. My distaste for ambulatory motion stems directly from the fact that my mother walked with the speed of a woman possessed. She always left home with a predetermined route in mind, hurtling out the door bundled up in gloves, scarves and oversized down coats in the winter and a large sun hat with her hair pinned up in the summer. Together, we would march post-haste through the rural wooded neighbourhood, gravel crunching under our feet until we reached farm fields that lined the main roads. On these walks, my mother would excitedly identify the various produce at their varying stages of development: cabbages, spinach, corn, apples; a greenhouse of strawberries. When we speed-walked through the fields, my mother cheerfully greeting the farmers as we passed, I would see each season slowly creep up, display its full force and silently sneak away. I felt a brief but profound connection to the land, the vegetation and the people that cultivated it.
As much as she loved her walks, there’s nothing my mother loved more than farmers markets. From the local agricultural cooperative (JA’s as they’re known in Japan) to the Friday Farmers markets in Cheltenham where I lived in the UK, wet markets in Hong Kong with their glowing red light bulbs and roadside produce stands, she would explore each stall inquisitively, trying perhaps one too many of the available samples and learning about the products and people that created them. She’d return home triumphantly with unusual and wonderful little treasures: lavender infused acacia honey from the beekeeper that lived 20 minutes away, pungent soft blue cheeses from the yoga instructor who kept goats, black garlic made in rice cookers, candied insects—there wasn’t much that she wouldn’t try at least once, and these novel foods always seemed to taste better because of the stories she brought back with them.
The memory I returned to in the department store was the one time she made me eat a tomato like an apple.
“Just bite into it!” she said, proffering the little red orb. This was, she proclaimed, the best tomato in the world. High sugar content (高糖度) amela rubins (アメーラルビンズ), or simply amela (アメ―ラ) tomatoes have a firm texture, and the small snap of each bite gives way to an explosion of juicy sweetness. Amela in the Japanese Shizuoka dialect means “sweet,” but amela tomatoes don’t just have one of the highest sugar contents of tomatoes worldwide; these red gems also balance acidity and a potent, fresh aroma to deliver an umami-packed sensorial experience. The tomatoes are so savoury that they seem almost salty.
I remembered how from the moment my mother discovered the amela tomato, she had become a regular visitor to the farm that produced them. Yanagisawa Farm grew these tomatoes in a large greenhouse and sold them on-site alongside tomato jams, sun-dried tomatoes and tomato juices. My mother's conversations with the cashier would reveal little details about the artificially inflated heat and carbon dioxide levels inside the greenhouse that mimicked climate conditions of the Cretaceous period; we learned the sweetest tomatoes are the ones that are slightly deprived of water, and we heard little snippets of the lives of the family that had built the farm. Every time we carried home a box of discounted tomatoes, cheaper because they were the wrong colour, shape or size for commercial distribution, we carried back with us the love and labour that went into the creation of them. Through my mother’s produce explorations, I learnt to appreciate the intimacy of food creation that begins far far away from the kitchen.
Standing under the fluorescent lights of the produce section at the department store in Hong Kong, I was struck by the fact that everything we consume is imbued with the lives and labor of people that facilitate their creation. Everything we own, and most spaces we inhabit, is intentionally shaped by thousands of hands that have their traces erased. At that moment, I saw the links between myself and the things and the people around me like bright threads entangling us all in the mammoth web of humanity, and yet I felt disconnected, fragmented—a distance that seemed unassailable.
Seeing these Amela tomatoes that had felt weighted with meaning back in Japan jarringly inflated in monetary value yet detached from the land, stories and hands that had brought them to this particular department store in Hong Kong felt peculiar.
I wondered if they would taste as sweet.
Stuffed Snails in Ginger Leaves (Vietnam: Hap La Gung) 釀田螺
梁秉鈞 Leung Ping-kwan
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I was picked up from the water field
added dried mushrooms, lean meat and onion
fish sauce and pepper
added a blade of strange ginger leaf
to be put back
into my shell
to make me more tasty
I was taken out
my own geography and history
given exotic colors
paid high prices
just to place me
into my unknown
Hannah Homma Tong is a Trinity senior. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.