From its name you might think it’s a type of tomato. It certainly looks a lot like one, once its husk is peeled away.
In fact, although the tomatillo is a member of the expansive nightshade family (which includes tomatoes as well as potatoes, aubergines, chillis and peppers), it actually falls within the physalis genus, making it more closely related to the cape gooseberry.
Like the cape gooseberry, the tomatillo is a smooth-skinned round fruit enveloped in a delicate, paper-thin, lantern-shaped husk. Green and pliant on the plant, once picked the husk starts to dry out, turning brown and brittle; the greener the husk, the more freshly picked the tomatillo.
Both cape gooseberries and tomatillos hark originally from Central and South America and, indeed, tomatillos are a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine. They are eaten fried, grilled or boiled in many different preparations and are a core ingredient of salsa verde.
Ripe tomatillo fruits can range from yellow to red and purple but green is the most common colour, making them look even more like unripe tomatoes.
The similarity of their names is no coincidence; both words come from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, with tomatillos originally being known as tomātl (fat water) and tomatoes as xitomatl (fat water with navel). When the Spaniards exported the tomato to the rest of the world, they took with them the name tomate.
But unlike the tomato, the tomatillo has not yet become a common global ingredient. Although imported Mexican fresh tomatillos are sometimes available in Europe, it has often been easier to find the fruit in tinned form.
However, in recent years, specialist farmers have started to grow tomatillos here in the UK. Edible Ornamentals, a chilli specialist in Bedfordshire, is the largest tomatillo grower in the UK and sells the fruit commercially. Owners Shawn and Joanna Plumb once lived in San Antonio, Texas, where they became very familiar with tomatillos along with many varieties of chilli. Mexican cooking is very popular in Texas.
Joanna is an enormous fan of tomatillos, explaining that “the flavour is like nothing I have ever tasted. It is a cross between a tomato, a cucumber and a water melon. Very refreshing.” Although she loves eating the fruits straight off the plant, she also enjoys them in a traditional green salsa.
Of course, one sure-fireway of getting your hands on fresh tomatillos is to grow them yourself. “Tomatillos grow like triffids,” warns Joanna, and recommends training them up a vertical support so they don’t take over your garden. You will need at least two plants as they pollinate each other.
Keen gardeners can buy tomatillo plants directly from Edible Ornamentals’ nursery in Chawston, Bedfordshire and visiting the farm also offers the opportunity of a chilli tour and Pick Your Own. You can also grow from seed – available from a number of seed catalogue companies. Tomatillos usually start fruiting in July or August and, if you grow them in a greenhouse or polytunnel, continue until the frost comes along.
If you are able to find fresh tomatillos, the good news is that they last for a couple of weeks in the fridge; up to twice that if the husks are removed. They can also be frozen, whole or chopped. And, of course, you can cook them and preserve in jars. It’s worth noting that tomatillos have a high pectin content, making them a great ingredient to add to jams and chutneys.
Tomatillo Salsa Recipe
by Joanna Plumb of Edible Ornamentals
10 tomatillos with husk removed, finely diced
Half a finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 serrano chile pepper, minced
2 tablespoons chopped coriander
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
0.5 teaspoon ground cumin
0.5 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- Place tomatillos, onion, garlic, and Serrano chilli into a bowl.
- Season with coriander, oregano, cumin and salt.
- Leave for about 30 minutes and then serve.
- Can be used as a side dish, in fajitas or as a dip for tortilla chips.
You may also be interested in Joanna’s chilli growing tips, which she shared with us during our visit.
This piece was written in 2014 and first published in Good Things magazine. ©Kavita Favelle.