Real Food Encyclopedia | Papayas

The origins of papaya (Carica papaya) are lost to time. Even the definitive “The Oxford Companion to Food” says very little of its pre-Columbian history.

Believed to be native to Central America, Spanish invaders quickly took to the salmon-orange colored fruit and planted it throughout the Caribbean and South America. By the 17th Century, Dutch and Portuguese colonists had followed suit and brought papaya to Africa and then onto the Far East, where it became an integral part of the cuisines of Southeast Asia.

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Fun Facts about Papayas:

  • Papaya is also known as papaw in Australia and other parts of the world. However, in the United States, the pawpaw is a indigenous, mango-shaped fruit. Confusing.
  • The papaya is botanically a berry. It may look like it grows from a tree, but the papaya is actually the fruit of an herb. And a tall one at that — the papaya tree can grow over 10 feet tall.
  • The word papaya derives from the Carib word ababai.
  • Did you know that papaya is a natural meat tenderizer? It contains papain, which breaks down tough meat fibers.
  • Papaya King, a New York City fast food institution, was the first to start a craze of serving papaya juice with hot dogs back in 1932. It’s an idea since replicated by knockoffs like Gray’s Papaya and Papaya Dog.

What to Look for When Buying Papayas

Choose a papaya whose skin is slightly soft when you press into it, like an avocado. Avoid fruit with dark spots, overly soft areas or shriveled skin.

Papayas come in two shapes — the smaller, pear shaped Hawaiian variety and the bigger, oblong variety grown in Mexico and Central America and commonly found in supermarkets. On average they can weigh in around three to five pounds. Slice open the yellow-green papaya and at the center is a mass of distinctive black seeds with a gelatinous coating. The color of the fruit ranges from salmon hued to a deep, ruddy orange. In Asian markets and grocery stores you may find green papaya, which is distinctive for is green skin and hard, pale interior and white seeds.

Sustainability of Papayas

Papaya was one of the first fruits on the front lines in the debate over genetically engineered (GE) food. In 1998, it became the first transgenic fruit sold in the United States, and to this day papaya is a source of contention in Hawaii where a large percent of what’s grown is GE and pollen drift has even cross contaminated presumably organic papayas. While the future of GE papaya is uncertain, especially in Hawaii, the genie is out of the bottle.

Papaya is also a thirsty plant, needing moist soil to thrive. The Water Footprint Network, which divides water into three types, calls this “green” water or the “volume of rainwater consumed during the production process.” In fact, papaya has a water footprint of 55 gallons per pound. But when you compare papaya against other thirsty plants like coffee, chocolate, mango or even wheat, it has a relatively low water footprint.

Pesticides and Papayas

According to the Environmental Working Group, papayas are part of the “Clean Fifteen,” meaning that of the fruits and vegetables it tested for pesticide residue, papaya was one of fifteen with the lowest chemical load. That’s good news! Well, sort of. As a precaution against foodborne pathogens and invasive pests, papaya is now irradiated before export in some countries.

Papaya Seasonality

While papaya is available all year round in grocery stores, peak season is June through September.

Papayas and Geography

Papaya is a tropical plant that grows within approximately 30 degrees above and below the equator and is highly susceptible to frost. With large fronds sprouting from the top like a crown, the papaya tree doesn’t look that dissimilar from the palm, especially with the fruit clustering near the top. However, the trunk of the tree is soft, like a large stem. Papaya is also notoriously finicky, needing lots of sunlight, warm temperatures, shelter from wind and well drained, fertilized soil. However, papaya grows quickly and will start fruiting within 10 months.

Hawaii is the only place in the US where papayas are grown commercially. There was once an industry in Florida and Puerto Rico, but it was wiped out by the ringspot virus. Spread by aphids and leaving ringed shaped circles on the skin, the virus nearly destroyed papaya groves in Hawaii over the 1980s and 1990s. It ultimately led to the first transgenic papaya, the Rainbow, which was created when scientists inserted genes from the ringspot virus into the papaya for a built in vaccine.

India is the world’s top producer, growing 38 percent of the papayas globally. However, when it comes to exports, Mexico, Brazil and Belize lead the way.

Eating Papayas

Storing Papayas

Papayas are highly perishable. Once they ripen, they won’t last long unless refrigerated, and even then, no longer than a week or two.

Cooking with Papayas

Most people eat papaya raw. All you have to do is slice up the fruit into cubes, discarding the skin and seeds. You can even dress it with lime juice and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper. Fancy! In Thailand, they shred green papaya raw and serve in a salad called Som Tam with fish sauce, lime, sprouts, vegetables and fresh herbs. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can dry and grind papaya seeds and use as a black pepper substitute. Other uses for papaya include folk remedies to treat wounds, bites and Dengue fever.

Preserving Papayas

The easiest way to save your papaya for later is to freeze in cubes, which can then be added to smoothies. But there is a long tradition in warmer climes of making papaya into jam and papaya pickles. Try dried papaya for a healthy snack when traveling.

Papaya Nutrition

Papaya is rich with vitamins, minerals and reduces inflammation. In fact, a cup of raw papaya contains 150 percent of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C as well as 31 percent of Vitamin A and 10 percent of potassium. Papaya is high in beta carotene, which has been known to cause carotenemia, a harmless and temporary yellowing of the skin if you eat a ton of it. Additionally, papaya contains latex and may cause a reaction in those who are allergic.