Real Food Encyclopedia | Pawpaws
Despite being North America’s largest native fruit, most people have never heard of the pawpaw, let alone experienced its custardy texture and tropical flavor.
The pawpaw has a large range, extending from Canada to Florida and from Nebraska to the Atlantic. Despite where it grows, it has a taste that some people describe as a delicious cross between a banana and a mango, which it shares with its more tropical cousins cherimoya and soursop.
The pawpaw has been used by Native Americans for centuries for both its fruit and its medicinal properties. Many tribes, including the Osage and Sioux, ate the fruit; the Iroquois used the mashed fruit to make small dried cakes to reconstitute later for cooking. It is believed that the pawpaw’s range is as large as it is because its growth was encouraged by various Native American tribes. The scientific name for the pawpaw, Asimina triloba, comes directly from the Powhatan tribe’s name for the fruit, Assimina.
Fun Facts about pawpaws:
- The pawpaw’s tropical taste is no coincidence: it is the only temperate member of the custard apple family, a group of tropical trees and shrubs that include cherimoya and soursop. Scientists suspect that the fruit’s distance from its cousins and its unusually wide distribution may be the result of extinct animals — like giant ground sloths — eating the fruit and spreading the seeds through droppings. Archeologists believe indigenous people further expanded this range by cultivating the fruit.
- The English name pawpaw may come from the Spanish word for the papaya, which has a similar-looking (though unrelated fruit).
What to look for when buying or foraging pawpaws
Although the pawpaw is experiencing a surge in popularity, it isn’t widely grown on a commercial scale. This, along with a delicate skin and short shelf life, makes it nearly impossible to find in stores. If you live in the Eastern US, look for pawpaws at your local farmers market during the late summer and early fall, but you may need to ask around and show up early, since the fruit is in high demand. Some areas even have pawpaw festivals to celebrate the arrival of the fruit.
Foraging for wild pawpaw fruits is popular throughout its native range, especially in Appalachia. Pawpaws tend to be most common in established forests in areas with light shade. If you plan on foraging, be sure to check out some guides online to help you learn to spot the tree’s distinctive leaves and fruits. As always, check your local regulations for any land you plan to forage on -—representatives from your state and local parks system may also be able to point you towards a stand where collecting is allowed.
Whether you’re foraging, growing your own, or lucky enough to find them at the market, look for fruit that’s soft to the touch and has a strong, fruity aroma. Not all pawpaw varieties change color — some may be yellow when mature, while others remain green – so the scent is the best way to determine ripeness. If you’re picking them from a tree, fruits will fall to the ground when ripe or come off with a gentle shake.
Sustainability of pawpaws
Pawpaws are an important tree in the forests of the Eastern and Midwestern US. Like other wild, food-producing trees (like mulberries and sassafras), they are an important source of both food and habitat for wildlife: squirrels, raccoons, opossums, foxes and bears all consume pawpaw fruits. They help stabilize soil with their roots and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their wood.
Pawpaws are mainly pollinated by flies, who are attracted to the maroon flowers that some say smell like rotting meat. Their leaves are the sole food source for the caterpillars of the zebra swallowtail butterfly; much like monarch butterflies become poisonous by eating milkweed, swallowtails use compounds called acetogenins in the leaves of the pawpaw to deter predators. These acetogenins also deter other animals like deer from eating the leaves. Interestingly, scientists and foresters say this has made pawpaw saplings more common as growing deer populations eat other trees — good news for foragers in the future!
Pawpaws become ripe in late August through September and into early October.
Pawpaws have a very short shelf life at room temperature, so use ripe fruit as quickly as possible for best flavor and texture. Slightly underripe pawpaws can ripen in the fridge over a few weeks, while ripe ones can be kept in the fridge for several days. For longer-term storage, frozen pulp (skin and seeds removed) keeps well and can be used for baking and jams.
Many aficionados insist that fresh, raw pawpaws are the best way to enjoy the fruit. Most ripe pawpaws have bright flavors of tropical fruit, often likened to mangoes and bananas. As some varieties ripen further, they develop more deep, caramelly flavors and creamier textures. There are a couple of different techniques to cutting and eating a fresh pawpaw, but keep an eye out for the large seeds. If you want to use the pulp, press the peeled fruit through a colander to easily get rid of the seeds. .With its custard-like consistency, they work well in baked goods, where its tropical flavors give way to more caramelly notes. , There are a number of treats, including breads, puddings, cheesecake and ice cream, that incorporate fresh or frozen pawpaw pulp. Pawpaws can also be substituted in recipes that call for fresh or mashed banana, like banana bread and banana pudding.
Pawpaws are often made into jams that highlight their creamy texture. Indigenous tribes like the Iroquois traditionally dried pawpaw flesh into small cakes that could be consumed dry or reconstituted into sauces. However, exercise caution with dried pawpaw or fruit leathers: some people have reported nausea and illness after eating dried pawpaw, and the causes of this intolerance are still unclear.
Compared to many other fruits, they are relatively high in protein and fat, and a good source of many vitamins: the pawpaw has three times the vitamin C as an apple and twice as much as a banana. It has double the riboflavin as an orange and a good amount of niacin.
Acetogenins, which give pawpaw leaves and bark an unpleasant taste to most animals, are also present in small quantities in the fruit. Acetogenins have been studied as a tool to fight cancer, though there’s no high-quality evidence to suggest that consuming the fruit can prevent cancer so far. However, these compounds can induce allergy-like symptoms in some people who eat pawpaws, including headaches, nausea, and rashes. Thankfully, these symptoms are uncommon and subside quickly.
Top photo by eqroy/ Adobe Stock