Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Papaya

When Christopher Columbus first tasted papaya, he allegedly called it the fruit of the angels. But, much like Columbus himself, papaya is a polarizing fruit. You either love the creamy cross between a mango and a squash or are totally grossed out by the flavor. I'm definitely on Team Papaya. It may not be the world's most popular tropical fruit, but it's definitely giving mango and pineapple a run for their money.

A Brief History

The origins of papaya (Carica papaya) are lost to time. Even the definitive 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 Portugese 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.

Papaya is also on the front lines in the debate over genetically engineered 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 — over 75 percent of the state's crop 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.

Factual Nibbles

  • Papaya is also known as papaw in Australia and other parts of the world. However, in the United States, the papaw is a mango-shaped fruit indigenous to the southeast. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Cultivation

Papaya is a tropical plant that grows approximately 30 degrees above and below the equator and 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.

Seasonality

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

Environmental impact

According to the Environmental Working Group, papayas are part of the "Clean Fifteen," meaning that of the 48 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. According to USDA tests, there are seven pesticides in the residue, two of which are toxic to bees and one is a known hormone disruptor. (*See our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below.) Bummer. On top of that, over 75 percent of papaya commercially grown in the US is genetically modified. Not to mention that GM papaya has cross contaminated conventional Hawaiian papaya — enough that many organic farmers have stopped growing the fruit.

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.

As an aside, a 23-state outbreak of salmonella in 2011 was traced back to papayas from Mexico. Considering that papaya needs a lot of water to grow, the batch from 2011 were likely contaminated by animal or even human waste in irrigation water or agricultural runoff. As a precaution against foodborne pathogens and invasive pests, papaya is now irradiated before export in some countries (though not the US), a controversial process involving the use of gamma, X-rays or an electron beam.

Characteristics

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.

What to look for

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.

Nutrition and effects on the body

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.

What to Do With It

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.

Storage

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

Pro tip

Apparently papaya isn't just for eating. You can mash it up and apply to the face as a beauty treatment, which, if the internet testimonials are to be believed, gives you glowing skin.

Stretching your food dollars through preservation

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 pickles. I'm a fan of dried papaya, which is a healthy snack when traveling.

Recipe

I was faced with a dilemma. What recipe would I make to showcase papaya's deliciousness? Obviously papaya rocks as a solo artist, unadorned — maybe with a squeeze of lime if you’re feeling adventurous. Most papaya recipes out there are for green papaya salad (or variants on Thailand's Som Tam), but unless you have access to an Asian grocery store or a reliable source, green papaya can be hard to come by. So, I took a risk, and it paid off in a delicious, tropical twist on an old-school American favorite.

Taking my trusty go-to recipe for fruit crisp dessert, I swapped apples for papaya and ginger for vanilla, plus I added a sprinkle of shredded coconut to the crust. As with its less-exotic counterparts, this one pairs well with vanilla ice cream, too.

Serves 8.

Papaya Coconut Crisp

Ingredients:

Filling
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Half an orange papaya, seeded and cut into inch sized pieces
1 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Topping
1 cup all purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/3 cup shredded coconut

Tip:

Choose a ripe papaya from Mexico or the Caribbean. These papayas are oblong and have orange colored fruit.

Equipment:

8x8 Pyrex dish and a food processor or pastry blender.

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 400°F.

2. Place sugar in large bowl. Add all the rest of the filling ingredients; toss well. Transfer to 8-inch square glass baking dish. Bake until papaya is softened, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven; stir filling.

3. In a bowl, blend flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt with a pastry knife until it forms coarse crumbs. You can also use a food processor, adding butter and mixing with short pulses. Fold in shredded coconut. Sprinkle crumbs over filling, spreading evenly. Bake the crisp until topping is golden brown, about 25 minutes. There should be toasty firmness to the crumb layer. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them — agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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