Tomatillo Climbs the Export LadderBy Jan Hogewoning | Thu, 06/04/2020 - 17:49
Yesterday, we wrote about the guava, a South American fruit that is prized for its rich sweet and sour flavor. This fruit, however, is just scratching its potential in US and European markets. Another fruit that is not well known in these export destinations is a central staple in Mexican cuisine: the tomatillo, often referred to as miltomato, green tomato or as the Mexican husk tomato. While they may bare the same ‘tomato’ name, which derives from the Nahuatl tomatl, the red tomato and green tomato are in the same family but not the same genus (the red tomato being in the genus Solanum and the green tomato, which we will call tomatillo, in genus Physalus).
Most of the species of the Physalus genus, counting between 75-90, originate in the Americas, as does the red tomato. The genus is characterized by papery husk that forms around the fruit, which is a feature of the tomatillo. In his book “Top 100 Exotic Food Plants,” agricultural researcher Ernest Small writes that the tomatillo was probably domesticated by pre-Hispanic populations in Mexico and played an important part in both Aztec and Mayan culture. “The tomatillo was much preferred to the (red) tomato,” writes Small. Aside from being served as a foodstuff, the fruit was also used for medicinal purposes to treat respiratory ailments.The fruit continues to be strongly present in Mexican food, used predominantly as a vegetable in both fresh and cooked versions. The most famous application is salsa verde. The husks are commonly used for an infusion which is then added to tamale dough. The fruit is known to be rich in vitamin A and C as well dietic fibre.
Native to a region spanning from Baja California to Guatemala, tomatillo is grown across Mexico. In 2018, tomatillo made up 4.7 percent of total Mexican vegetable production. According to the Agricultural and Fishery Information Service (SIAP), Mexico produced a total volume of 778,000 tons of tomatillo in 2018, which is an increase of 200,000 tons since the year 2011. The biggest producing state by far is Sinaloa, which produced 164,500 tons in 2018, followed by Zacatecas (87,900) and Jalisco (84,000). SIAP estimates the Sinaloa’s tomatillo harvests generated a revenue of MX$501 million (US$22.8 million) in 2018. The total national value of export to the biggest destination, the US, was US$82 million in 2018. In May 2019, InfoRural reported that farmers in Puebla and Tlaxcala had gone on a strike due to what they perceived as very low selling price of MX$4 (US$18 cents) a kilo. The fruit was in turn sold by supermarket at a price of MX$23.90 (US$1.09) a kilo. The mass inequity between the rates for farmers and those for supermarkets, is a pervasive issue in the agricultural sector.
While the volume of tomatillo production keeps growing and exports too, the export revenues of tomatillo bleaks compared to that of the red tomato. The red tomato makes up 22.6 percent of total horticultural produce in Mexico and the year 2018 saw a national production of 3.7 million tons. In fact, Mexico is the world’s number 1 red tomato exporter. In 2018, Sinaloa is estimated to have generated MX$7.24 billion (US$330.8 million) from red tomato production, of which a value of US$1.7 billion was exported to the US. The success of the red tomato is understandable, considering that it is a far more common item in cuisines in the US and other destinations in the world. The average Mexican consumes 16.8kg of red tomato a year compared to the 5.4kg of its green cousin.
While the red tomato may dwarf export numbers of tomatillo, the latter’s exports increased from a value of US$26.2 million in 2009 to US$82.1 million in 2018, an increase of 313.4 percent in less than 10 years. “The export of the Mexican green tomato has demonstrated a continuous ascension, reaching another export record in 2018,” says SIAP. The red tomato, in comparison, increased export revenues from US$732 million in 2009, to US$1.7 billion in 2018, an increase of 232 percent. The primary destinations of the tomatillo are the US, followed by the UK, UAE, France, Canada and Belize. “At least seven other countries have made (tomatillo) purchases that are insignificant to total Mexican agricultural export. However, they represent opportunities for bigger sales in the future,” says SIAP. Considering the tomatillo is lesser known in foreign markets, the export numbers of tomatillos over the last years are even more impressive.
The US, which has a very large Mexican-American community, continues to be a primary driver of demand for tomatillo. Being in close proximity and producing by far the largest volume in the region, Mexico is in a strong position to keep meeting this demand. INIFAP scientists have observed that it was demand from the US, that led to Mexican tomatillo production being industrialized in the mid-80s. The American demand is helped by an increased popularity of authentic, and not so authentic, Mexican food in the US due to an increasing Hispanic population. The largest Mexican restaurant chain in the US, Chipotle, uses tomatillo in four different menu items. An IBIS world report indicated that the Mexican restaurant industry saw a 4.8 percent growth between 2012 and 2019 in the US. ‘Latin cuisine’ sector revenues grew by around 90 percent between 1999 and 2014, second only to Asian food at 135 percent. The thirst for Mexican cuisine is not just on the rise in the US. The Guardian reported in 2015, that Mexican-style restaurants had grown by 71 percent in the UK in 2014, which may explain why the UK is now the number 2 tomatillo export destination for Mexican producers.