The Queen of Tomatillos : Reina de Malinalco

We all know (at least I hope we all know) that the home of the tomato is Mesoamerica. This where the greatest genetic diversity of this plant can be found. If we include the cultivars as well as the heirloom and landrace varieties there are over 10,000 (that’s right TEN THOUSAND) types of tomato out there (Moore 2021). In Nahuatl this fruit was known as Xitomatl (1)

  1. Xitomatl evolved into tomatl which then evolved into tomate and (en inglés) tomato. The red (or yellow) tomato is called jitomate in México today (a regional word most commonly used in southern México). This is no doubt a remnant of the original Nahuatl word.

Well today I would like to look at one of tomato’s cousins the tomatillo.

Now the tomatillo initially caused some confusion for me as my Mexican friends did not know it by this name. They call it tomate verde or green tomato.

Now to me a “green tomato” was simply an unripe red tomato (and still a valuable food item)

Which also happened to be a favourite movie of mine

Tomatoes and tomatillos are both members of the nightshade family (1). A tomatillo is a small, green, spherical fruit that looks like a small tomato (2). The tomatillo is encased by a papery husk and the fruit inside the husk is sticky/tacky to the touch.

  1. Solanacaea; as are chiles, potatoes, eggplants (aubergine) and plenty more
  2. Tomatillo means “little tomato” in Spanish.

The Milpero tomatillo is a miniature relative of the tomatillo (about half the size of your regular tomatillo). The word “milpero” is derived from “milpa”, the Spanish term for cornfield. Milpero tomatillos, or “tomatillos from the field”, got their name because they are often found in Mexico growing in between rows of corn. Also called “miltomate”. These tomatillos are smaller and more “sour” than the regular tomatillo.

Size comparison is way off in this image.

The tomatillo is a much smaller fruit than a tomato (jitomate) and is usually only about 2.5 to 5cms across (1-2 inches) although there are varieties so large that once removed from their husk are the same size as a large tomato

The tomatillo belongs to the Physalis species. There are many plants in this species, often called husk tomatoes or ground cherries, that are available both commercially and from specialty/heirloom seed savers. Some of these include…….

Physalis ixocarpa : Tomatillos exist in a variety of colours and types. They are usually picked when still green (like the jalapeno chile) although most will change colour to a lighter green (possibly streaked with purple) as they ripen. Some are entirely purple. These all have slightly different favours and acidity profiles.

Physalis pruinosa – the ground cherry

Physalis peruviana : The Cape Gooseberry was my first introduction to the husk tomato family. These plants were considered a weed in rural Australia. In the 1990’s this food became a “superfood” and was rebranded as an Inca berry (or Golden Berry). The dried Inca berry is a tangy and chewy delight.

Physalis alkekengi : The Chinese Lantern. Some are decorative/ornamental plants and the fruits of these varieties are (generally speaking) not regularly eaten.

Gail Thomas (1) has an excellent size comparison for some of the various husk tomatoes.
Clockwise from top left, tomatillos, cape gooseberries, ground cherries (photo by Gail Thomas)
  1. on the Penny Woodward Blog – see website links in References at bottom of page

I love the pericon in the picture.

So.

Why title this Post “The Queen of Tomatillos”?

Well, let me introduce you to the Queen (now might be an appropriate time to bow)

the “Queen of Malinalco” (Reina de Malinalco) tomatillo is a variety of landrace (1) tomatillo believed to originate in the historic region of Malinalco.

  1. A landrace is a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species. An heirloom plant, heirloom variety, heritage fruit, or heirloom vegetable is an old cultivar of a plant used for food that is grown and maintained by gardeners and farmers, particularly in isolated or ethnic minority communities of the Western world. In short, heirloom is seed saving. Heirloom plants are understood to grow from seeds handed down from one generation to the next. Landrace strains are those native to specific regions of the world. By comparison, heirloom strains have been removed from their native environment to be grown in other areas of the world. A landrace population hasn’t been selected for stable, uniform characteristics like an heirloom. Instead, a landrace has promiscuously incorporated genetic material from plants with different characteristics, evolving over time to thrive in specific growing conditions.
Official seal of Malinalco
By Marrovi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The name Malinalco comes from the Nahuatl “malinalli” = a kind of grass (called zacate del carbonero in Spanish), “xóchitl” = flower; and “co = place of , which translates (more or less) to “where they worship the goddess Malinalxóchitl, the malinalli flower”. The name also refers to one of the time periods on the Aztec calendar, marked by the malinalli plant. In Aztec and early colonial times, the area was represented by a number of glyphs, often with elements of the malinalli plant and/or a human skull to indicate sacrifice. Malinalco has always been associated with magic or sorcery due to the legend that it was the home the goddess Malinalxóchitl.

Malinalco is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos.

Some of Malinalcos street life.

This unusual variety of tomatillo is most likely a Physalis ixocarpa. While dubbed “Queen of Malinalco”, this is not the true name of this variety. Locally they are called “acorazado or acorazonado” meaning heart shaped”.

Unique in almost every respect (when compared to your standard tomate verde) this plant has the same growth habit and size of a tomatillo but it is it fruits that make it stand out over the tomate verde.

This variety was reported by renowned botanist Joseph Simcox. Botanical explorer Joe Simcox reportedly searched high and low for this fabled variety revered for its extra large fruit and sweet fruity flavour.

Joseph Simcox is known both as a botanist and a botanical explorer He studies plants all over the world and consults on making nutritious food plants to grow in very desolate environments like sandy deserts. He is also an anthropologist and a botanical chef.

Unlike regular tomatillos, these fall from the plant when ripe, so pick them as soon as the yellow fruits poke out of their husk or green fruits ripen to yellow. This variety tastes completely different from all other tomatillos; they are a deep yellow colour and they taste fruity and sweet. The fruit also differs in shape to the tomatillo in being pointed or torpedo shaped (or heart shaped as the common name suggests).

They are sweet enough to eat out of hand.

Another way in which they differ is that it’s really easy to remove the insides and seeds so the fruits can be used for stuffing (much as you might do with a jalapeno – or any other – chile) although some fruits will still be solid like a tomatillo. I suspect that the riper the fruit is the easier it will be to remove the seeds.

You can see how hollow the inside of the fruit is and how easy it would be to remove the seeds. The fruit does become somewhat mealy (1) when it is over-ripe

  1. having the qualities of meal; powdery; soft, dry, and crumbly; mealy fruit or vegetables are soft and feel rough, dry, and unpleasant in your mouth

I am in the process of sourcing the seeds now and, once it begins, will take you through my journey growing them.

All Hail the Queen.

References

  • Enciclopedia de los Municipios de México Estado de Mexico Malinalco” (in Spanish). Instituto Nacional para el Federalismo y el Desarrollo Municipal. Archived from the original on 26 May 2014.
  • Moore, Justin (September 5, 2021). “Selecting the Best Tomato Varieties for Your Garden”. NSCU Agricultural Extension. North Carolina State University. Archived from the original on October 4, 2021. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  • Sáenz, Claudia. “Malinalco. Lugar de la flor del zacate (Estado de México)” [Malinaco, place of the zacate flower] (in Spanish). Mexico: Mexico Desconocido.

Websites

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