Whenever I bite into a silky smooth papaya, I can almost hear the rustling of the palms in the balmy trade winds and feel the warm sun on my shoulders. Mmmmm… The papaya brings a little taste of paradise to us all, wherever we live.
Once considered rather “exotic” in many parts of the world, including the US, this sweet, tropical, melon-like fruit has become an increasingly common dessert or accompaniment to breakfasts, salads, and spicy foods. However, in spite of its ever-increasing presence, there is still much to learn about this versatile fruit.
From the Tropics to Your Table
Grown in tropical and subtropical areas around the world, the papaya (also called papaw, pawpaw, mamao, or tree melon) is a pear-shaped fruit with skin that turns from green to a bright orange-yellow as it ripens. It is about 6 inches long and can range from 1-20 pounds in weight, depending on the variety. Inside, the papaya has silky smooth, orange-yellow flesh and a large center cavity full of shiny grayish-black seeds. The flesh is juicy and has a subtle, sweet-tart or musky taste, somewhat like a cantaloupe. A properly ripened papaya is juicy and sweet.
It is believed that the papaya originated in southern Mexico, Central America, or the West Indies. Now widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries, there are about 45 species of papaya. The most common variety in the US is the Solo papaya, which is grown in Hawaii and Florida. Mexican papayas are much larger than the Hawaiian types and may be more than 15 inches long.
Using the Pulp of the Papaya
The papaya is not only delicious, but it is a remarkably versatile fruit. In addition, it can be prepared ahead of time since it does not discolor when exposed to air. Here are some of the many ways that papaya can be served:
- Fresh, stewed, baked, sautéed, barbecued, or as a garnish
- With bananas, pineapple, strawberries, oranges, limes, and coconuts
- Cut into a variety of shapes and served as a breakfast food, in salads, or as a complement to spicy food
- When unripe (green), tossed in salsa or added to soups and stews
- Slightly warmed, cubed, and added, along with cubed mango and pineapple, to fish and poultry
- Added to a fruit smoothie
- Pureed for dressings and marinades
Papaya juice (or nectar) is sold in many supermarkets and health food stores.
Enzymes and Seeds of the Papaya Are Useful Too
Papaya has other uses, as well. It contains papain, which is a digestive enzyme used primarily in meat tenderizers. The peppery seeds of the papaya are also edible and make a delicious salad dressing.
The papaya is a good source of vitamins A and C , as well as folate and fiber. In addition, it is fat-free, cholesterol-free and low in sodium. And an average serving (½ papaya) has only 70 calories. It is hard to believe that such a delicious food could have all that going for it! Take a look:
Selection and Storage
When choosing a papaya, look for one that is fairly large, half yellow or more, and slightly soft. It should yield to gentle palm pressure. Avoid papayas that are too soft or those that have scars or blemishes.
If the skin has no yellow, the papaya will ripen if left at room temperature for a few days. If a papaya is less than half ripe, do not store it in the refrigerator. Cool temperatures shut off the ripening process. A papaya that is ¼ to ½ ripe should keep for 1-2 weeks. Completely ripe papayas should be refrigerated and eaten as soon as possible.