Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

One Husky Little Tomato:
Mexico's Tomatillo Unwrapped

by Kate Heyhoe


When you think of tart fruits, citrus products like limes and lemons probably come to mind. Citrus is certainly the most common acidic fruit used in most cuisines, but in Mexico, cooks also rely on an entirely different fruit to add fresh, crisp, tart flavors: the tomatillo.

Without tomatillos, there would be no salsa verde...no green sauce for chicken enchiladas, pork tamales, or green pumpkinseed mole sauce. Even sauces that appear to be made solely from red ingredients—red chiles and red tomatoes—often get their characteristic perkiness from some well-blended tomatillos, visibly noticeable not by color but by their characteristic numerous small seeds.

Like the tomato, another fruit that's only distantly related, the tomatillo is native to the Americas and was a staple of the Aztecs. But unlike the tomato, which was adopted by cultures on all continents, the tomatillo's use has remained almost exclusively Latin American. Only recently, in the 1950's, was it introduced to India where it is now used in some chutneys. and while Australia and South America cultivate tomatillos commercially, it is yet to become a common ingredient in their own cuisines.

"Tomatillos" means "little tomatoes" in Spanish. In comparing the tomatillo and the tomato, their names and their botanical membership in the nightshade or Solanacae family are about all they have in common. Tomatillos are actually more closely aligned with another nightshade relative, the Cape gooseberry.

Interestingly, the Cape gooseberry is believed to be native to Peru, just as the tomatillo is. But the Cape gooseberry is so named because of Africa's Cape of Good Hope, where it was a celebrated fruit in the early 1800's. Later it was enthusiastically welcomed in Australia and New Zealand, followed by India, Malaysia and Hawaii. Yet, with all its popularity in other lands, the Cape gooseberry is virtually unknown in North America, where its cousin the tomatillo thrives in both soil beds and savory sauces. Besides their common birthplace, the tomatillo and Cape gooseberry share similar appearances: both are covered in a papery-thin husk, both are round, come in green-yellow hues with thin, waxy skins and contain many small seeds. Both are high in Vitamin C and A.


Tomatillos 101

Mexico's Tomatillo UnwrappedA decade ago, the tomatillo (toe-mah-TEE-yoh) was found only in Latin markets, and often only in cans. Today, most major supermarkets stock them fresh, near the chiles and ginger. Mexicans and Central Americans are the biggest consumers, but with the growing popularity of Latin foods and the ease with which tomatillos can be prepared, gringos of all backgrounds are learning to cook with them.

Name: Physalis ixocarpa (Latin). Other names: the husk tomato (tomate de cascara), tomate verde (green tomato); tomatitto; fresadilla; miltomatl (Aztec); membrane tomatoes; jamberry.

Appearance: Compact, round and firm with a parchment-like skin that peels off easily.

Seeds and pulp: Tomatillos contain numerous seeds within their firm pulp. Leave the seeds in; do not remove. The pulp itself is high in a pectin-like substance which acts as a natural thickener. As such, sauces made with tomatillos tend to thicken slightly upon refrigeration.

Taste: Flavors of green apple, lemon, with herbal, tart undertones. Can be used raw or cooked. Cooking tempers the intensity of the flavors.

Selecting: Choose firm, unblemished fruits with husks tightly attached (the tighter the husk the fresher the fruit). Tomatillos turn green when ripe, then begin to yellow; for the best flavor, select bright green ones. They are now available all year, but are best in spring and summer. Size varies from small grape-size to that of plums.

Canned tomatillos: Not recommended. The flavor is watery and can have an off-taste from the can.

Storage: Refrigerate up to 4 weeks in a paper bag.


Preparing Tomatillos

Before using, peel off the husks and rinse to remove the sticky residue. Other than peeling off the husk, do not peel the green skin.

Tomatillos are traditionally used in three ways—raw, boiled/blanched, or roasted/grilled:

Raw—Uncooked tomatillos add a fresh, tangy citrus-like flavor and are often used raw in Mexican table sauces. Finely dice or purée them.

Blanching—Mellows the flavor. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the whole tomatillos (husks removed and rinsed) and boil for about 5 minutes, until soft. Drain and crush or purée as directed in a sauce recipe.

Fire roasting—Leaving slightly blackened skins on enriches a sauce with a smoky, woodsy flavor. Can roast under the broiler, with a propane torch, or over an open flame such as a grill or a gas burner. Make sure the heat is quite hot, otherwise the tomatillos will turn mushy before being charred.

Dry roasting—Produces an earthy, nutty flavor. Place the tomatillos in a heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron). Turn heat to low. Roast for about 20 to 30 minutes, turning occasionally, letting each side take on a rich, burnished golden color before turning.

Finally, tomatillos can be quite inconsistent in flavor, with some being intensely sour and others tasting mild and sweet. Some cooks use a pinch of sugar to balance the taste of very tart tomatillos. The recipes below are typical Mexican tomatillo recipes, but the lively flavors of this perky little fruit lend themselves well to rounds of experimentation, from stir-fries to soups to salad dressings.

Kate Heyhoe



Green Tomatillos in Red Sauce


Archived Recipes:

Chile-Red Tuna (or Chicken or Shrimp),
     with Thick Roasted-Tomatillo Sauce
Green Tomatillo Salsa
Tomatillo and Pepper-Ring Escabeche with Garlic


Kate's Global Kitchen for June, 2001:

06/02/01 One Husky Little Tomato: Mexico's Tomatillo Unwrapped
06/09/01 Cooking with Jazz, Dakota-Style
06/16/01 Macho Nachos: Fiesta Food for Dad's 'n' Grads
06/23/01 Timelines & A Timely Menu

Coming in July-August: The Big Grilling Guide & The Haiku of Food Contest


Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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