Pronounced: toe-mah-TEE-yos. Like all of its cousins in the genus Physalis, the tomatillo is characterized by the papery husk that covers each of the small, firm fruits. Cape Gooseberries (P. peruviana) and the inedible Chinese Lanterns (P. alkekengi) are the most familiar close relatives of this plant. In each case, the fruit forms within the flower structure itself – the papery husk is actually the calyx, or the fused sepals of the flower. Until recently, true tomatillos were thought to be of the species P. ixocarpa, with P. philadelphica considered a wild variation. The two species are now considered synonymous.
Tomatillos are native to Mexico and Central America, where they were cultivated by the Aztecs as early as 800 BC, and they remain a staple of Mexican cuisine today. In Mexico, they are sometimes referred to as tomate verde (green tomato), or tomatillo, which just means small tomato. These fruits are considered ripe once the papery calyx that encloses each fruit has dried and turned from green to light brown, but the fruit itself does not become sweet like a tomato. Even when the fruit is fully ripe, and turns an appealing yellow, it remains somewhat tart. It is the tart, slightly acidic nature of the fruit that makes it perfect for processing (raw or cooked) into salsas, notably salsa verde, and even jam. Diced raw tomatillo also adds a pleasing crunchiness to guacamole.
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