The word, “jitomate” is a Mexican word for a big, red and juicy tomato. When you hear someone say “tomate” in Mexico, they’re talking about the greenish yellowish types of tomatoes. This is what most English-speaking people call a “tomatillo.”
While this may seem confusing, it’s not. This is a simple matter of translation from one language to another. However, “jitomate” as well as “tomate” have origins that go back much further than Spanish does. The Aztec people play a huge role in the pronunciation of this word, even today.
Origins of “Jitomate”; “Tomate”
“Jitomate” (pronounced hee-toe-mah-tay) and “tomate” (pronounced toe-mah-tay) are exclusively Mexican words describing different types of tomatoes. These fruits come from the Nightshade family of plants and people use them in sauces, salads, sandwiches, soups and so much more.
In terms of etymology, while the main language in Mexico is Spanish, the words “tomate” and “jitomate” have Aztec origins. These were the indigenous people living in the area pre-contact with Spanish conquistadores.
They spoke Náhuatl and called red tomatoes “xītomatl” (pronounced shee-toe-mah-tll) and the green ones “tomatl” (pronounced toe-mah-tll). When the Spanish learned Náhuatl, these words changed to “jitomate” and “tomate.”
“Jitomate” is the modern form of “xītomatl” and translates to “belly button of fat water.” “Tomatl” means “fat water.” This directly reflects how tomatoes appear: ripened, plump with water and a spot in the center from where it came off the vine. So, English is actually confusing the Aztec-influenced Spanish word “tomate” for “tomato.”
About the “Tomatillo”
“Tomatillo,” (pronounced toe-mah-tee-yohs) is a Spanish derivative of “tomate” with a documented use between 1910 and 1915. The –illos at the end of the word, or any Spanish term, infers its diminutive nature. But, in Mexico, they call it “tomate.”
These miniature purple or greenish-yellow tomatoes are firmer and smaller than red ones. They have an outer shell around them when ripe, which is much different from how red tomatoes develop. Tomatillos are a common ingredient for salsa verde (or green sauce), which is a delicious yet spicy condiment used for dipping or topping.
To recap, “jitomate” is the Mexican word for what is a “tomato” in English. “Tomatillos” are actually “tomates” in Mexican Spanish. Both “jitomate” and “tomate” are Spanish translations from ancient Náhuatl, which was the language of the indigenous Aztecs.