Don't be fooled by the tomato-like look of these small, oblong, orange-red fruits. A tamarillo is its own thing, even if the plant is sometimes called a tomato tree. Originally found in Latin and Central America, this fruit has become a popular ingredient in parts of India, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, where it was dubbed "tamarillo." It's now grown in warm, sunny areas around the world, but since production remains small, it's not always easy to find, especially fresh. Chefs and home cooks take to the citric sweet and tart flavor, using tamarillo in all sorts of dishes, from dessert to condiments to main courses.
What Is Tamarillo?
The tamarillo is a small, duck egg-sized fruit in the nightshade family that grows on trees in warm climates. It's originally from South America and was first cultivated in Peru, Boliva, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina. Now, this fruit has become popular in Africa, India, Nepal, China, Australia, United States, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.
It was New Zealand that really brought the tamarillo into the mainstream fruit market, and even gave the food its name during a marketing push in 1967. Prior, the tamarillo was mainly called a tree tomato, or tomate de árbol in its native country. The New Zealand Tree Tomato Promotions Council decided this original moniker sounded too much like a regular tomato. They decided to rebrand it and created the name "tamarillo," a label they felt sounded Spanish.
Tamarillos were first introduced to New Zealand by traders from Asia, and these early fruits tended to be yellow or purple in color. The common red-hued tamarillo was developed in the 1920s in an Auckland nursery using seeds from an orchard in South America. A decade later, the tamarillo became a commercial crop, albeit on a small scale. Now, most of the tamarillos come from New Zealand, but larger orchards in Colombia, Ecuador, California, and parts of Africa and Asia also grow the fruit commercially.
Today tamarillos come in red, gold, and amber hues. The fruit contains small, tender, edible seeds (similar to a tomato) and can be eaten fresh, although the peel is usually avoided. Tamarillo is used in chutney, mixed into sauces, made into a dessert topping, pressed into juices, baked, and pickled. The price varies based on your location—if you live in an area that does not grow tamarillos, they can be hard to find and expensive compared to other fruit.
How to Use Tamarillo
A tamarillo is sweeter and has more tang than a tomato but the texture is similar. Unlike a tomato, the tamarillo has a bitter skin that's best peeled before eating. This can be done by parboiling the fruit first. To eat the fruit raw, cut the tamarillo in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Keep in mind a raw tamarillo can be tart, so it is often sprinkled with sugar (similar to a grapefruit) when eaten this way.
Whether scooping the fruit raw or flash cooking it, the meat of the tamarillo can be used in smoothies, made into chutney, refined into hot sauce, and cooked down into a topping for egg dishes, roast chicken, or pasta. Try mixing tamarillo into curry, bake it into muffins, or use to top a breakfast porridge. In general, think of a tamarillo as the dessert version of a tomato and use it anywhere a tangy, sweet, and somewhat savory fruit might go.
What Does Tamarillo Taste Like?
Think of a sweet tomato, then add a sharp tang, citric bite, and bitter undertone, and that's basically what a tamarillo tastes like. The texture is similar to a tomato, including the small, edible seeds. The color of the fruit can affect the taste—the smaller amber-colored tamarillos have the sweetest flesh and are best in desserts. If the tamarillo is red, it will be on the savory side with a more citric profile, making it a great addition to a main dish or savory sauce. Finally, there are larger gold tamarillos, which aren't as sweet as amber but have more sugar than the red.
There aren't a plethora of recipes for this unique fruit, but a tamarillo can be used similarly to a tomato. It can even be the star of a dessert if cooked properly. Try substituting or adding tamarillo in these recipes.
- Instant Pot Frittata
- Eastern Indian Tomato Chutney
- Strawberry Smoothie (swap the strawberries for amber tamarillos)
Where to Buy Tamarillo
Despite the popularity of tamarillo in some countries, it's not an easy fruit to find, especially fresh. Latino groceries or markets that carry Latin American foods most likely have bags of frozen tamarillo pulp which can be used in smoothies or cooked applications. To source fresh tamarillo by the pound or by the item, check if there are orchards nearby that grow the fruit and buy directly from them. Otherwise, tamarillo fruit and seeds can be purchased online and shipped.
Look for tamarillo that is firm but not hard and brightly colored with no blemishes. Look for the same ripeness and quality indicators as when shopping for fresh tomatoes.
Most of the tamarillo available is frozen and should stay that way until ready to use. If the fruit is fresh, store it like a tomato—on the counter out of direct sunlight. Whole tamarillos can also be kept in the fridge to preserve the freshness longer, but won't last more than a couple of days. Once cut, place fresh tamarillo into an airtight container in the fridge and eat or cook within three days. If the tamarillo is cooked, it can last in the refrigerator for four days if in a sealed container.
There are three main types of tamarillo: amber, red, and gold. Amber-colored tamarillos are the sweetest and smallest type. Next on the sweet scale is gold, which is brighter and has a bit more tartness. It's also the largest of the three. Red tamarillos look the most like tomatoes and have a citric tartness with underlining sweet notes.