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New Mexico Native Tomatillo

Physalis philadelphica

New Mexico Native Chile Pepper in handAlso called: husk tomat, jamberry, ground cherry, Zuni tomatillo, Pueblo tomatillo, k’ia’-po-ti mo’-we (in the Zuni dialectic meaning ‘juice-filled fruitage’).

Tomatillo seeds have been found in archeological sites dating as far back as 298 AD in Ceja Mesa west of Albuquerque and also at River’s Edge west of the Rio Grande. Archeologists studying the period conjecture that prehistoric people cooked with the tomatillos fresh, dried and even ground the seeds to add to their food.

This fruit was traditionally gathered and semi-cultivated by the Zuni, Navajo, Western Keres, Southern Tiwa, and Tewa peoples. Today, some Zuni peoples still propagate the plant while other Native American groups do not. This propagation seems to be restricted to mainly one county in New Mexico.

The New Mexico tomatillo is a globe-shaped fruit with a pointed base. It is about one inch in diameter. The exterior of the tomatillo is wrapped with a papery husk called the calyx, which protects the fruit inside. Both calyx and fruit are green, though only the fruit is edible. These fruits typically grow in “among the sandy defiles of the upper plains, mesas, and mountains” in low abundant bushes.

In the mouth, the tomatillo is described as having both a sweet and smoky flavor, with slight citrus notes. The texture is also noted as being distinct and as the Zuni name references, having a lot of juice and succulence.

Traditonally, the tomatillo was and is added to salsas, stews, and soups, both in the raw and cooked forms. Though the Zunis made use of the fruit in a number of ways, and their recipes reflect their creativity in the usage of the fruit. The ancient Zunis would boil or stew the fruit to turn it into a sauce, which has been described as similar in taste to that of cranberry sauce, though less acidic. Another traditional Zuni use for the tomatillo was to cook the fruit down into a paste called K’e:ts’ido’kya K’yalk’osenne. Adaptations of the traditional recipe call for the use of green onions and roasted chiles. One Zuni recipe calls for drying and grinding the berries in order to produce meal to make bread, while yet another calls for boiled tomatillos crushed into chiles, coriander seeds, and onion.

Domesticated, industrially produced tomatillos have recently flooded the market in both Mexico and the United States, mainly due to their popularity and necessity in Mexican cuisine. This has caused several issues for wild and semi-wild varieties of the tomatillo. For one, now that the domesticated tomatillo is widely and easily available, there is the possibility that this has caused the decline in interest for the wild or semi-cultivated variety. Secondly, New Mexico tomatillos belongs to a different subspecies than the widely available Mexican tomatillo, but because the plant cross-breeds easily and the Mexican tomatillo is saturating the market, the genetic purity of the New Mexico tomatillos can easily become compromised when not carefully managed. Therefore, this subspecies of tomatillo is increasingly risking extinction.

Image courtesy of Agrestal Organic Heritage Seeds.

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