The tomatillo, or tomate verde, will be a pretty unfamiliar sight to British readers, but Americans with their much greater exposure to Mexican cuisine are more likely to recognise these lantern-like fruit. It’s a savoury relative of the cape gooseberry or physalis, which is more prized for it’s decorative properties than any particularly notable flavours – a vivid orange berry housed in a brown and papery husk.
Both fruits are native to Central and South America, falling into the same family of plants and potatoes and tomatoes and more distantly related to the Old World’s aubergine. The tomatillo (literally little tomato) is native to Mexico and is a staple ingredient, historically more significant the tomato. Unfortunately, they remain a novelty here. Tomatillos are available in jars and tins from online retailers but the fresh fruit is somewhat more elusive – the ones pictured were given to me, complete with a recipe for a tomatillo salsa, by my partner’s Mexican mother who found them for sale in a National Trust property!
Green at first, the skin on the tomatillo turns brown and papery as it ripens but they are usually used while unripe to better preserve their slightly sour and distinctly green flavours. Peeling away the thin skin (which isn’t as laborious a task as you might think) reveals the bright green fruit, shiny and slightly sticky to the touch but otherwise very similar to an unripe cherry tomato.
A relative of the tomato, it is used in a very similar way in Mexican cuisine – as the base for sauces, either served on the side or with meat and vegetables cooked in it. The tomatillos are cooked with onions, green chillies and water then blended to a purée with fresh coriander. The Mexican food writer Lourdes Nicholls uses the sauce to cook prawns or thickens it with ground pumpkin seeds to make a more luxurious sauce for chicken breast. In her chain of Wahaca restaurants, MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers serves a sweet tomatillo jam with buñuelos, a sort of sweet fritter, for dessert for a less traditional use of this fruit.
Sadly, this fruit doesn’t have much of a market in the UK to make it very widely available to try but hopefully a growing interest in the cuisines of Latin America beyond the Tex-Mex food that is generally available will make tomatillos more accessible in the future. But if you see them for sale at a market or farm shop, pick up a bagful and give them a try.