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Papaya From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Papaya From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

From Atchara to Zapote, 26 interesting papaya facts and figures: varieties, tips and nutrition facts about a fruit indigenous to Central America.

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Atchara. The popular Philippine side dish of julienned papaya fermented in a syrup of vinegar and sugar with onion, garlic, ginger, pepper and sweet red pimento. Impossible to resist when served with fried foods.

Brandy. In Ohio (USA) there is a popular brandy made from pawpaw, one of the many names used today to indicate papaya. However... this distilled product is not obtained from the fruit of the Carica papaya but that of the Asimina triloba, the so-called “Wild banana” or "Poor man's banana". It is indigenous to the west and south-west United States (from the Midwest to the Mississippi as far as the Atlantic Ocean, from North Florida to the shores of the Great Canadian Lakes).

Chichihualtzapotl. This was the name given to the papaya in Nahuatl (the ancient language of the Aztec, Colhua, Tepanec, Acolhua and Toltec civilizations), before the arrival of the Europeans. It literally means "sweet fruit of the wet nurse".

Dieng. The upland plain at 2400 metres above sea level in the central region of the Island of Java, home to the Indonesian mountain papaya, one of Indonesia’s seven edible species.

European explorers. The first European to taste papaya was Cortez when he came into contact with the Aztec civilization. The story goes that the Aztecs believed he was a God and received him in great honour with a sumptuous banquet at the end of which this fruit was served. Apparently, he understood its name to be "ababai", whose sound is reflected in the word we use today "papaya".

Flowers. Cooked papaya flowers strongly characterize the cuisine of Manado, the capital of the Indonesian province of north Sulawesi. Mainly pan-tossed with coconut oil, they have a somewhat bitter flavour which offsets the highly spicy notes of the local food.

Green papaya. This is not another cultivar but simply unripe papaya. It is the basic ingredient used to make "som tam" in Thai cuisine, which is the salad combining the five principal flavours of South East Asia: the sourness of lime, the hot spicy taste of chilli pepper, salt, the pungent savoury flavour of fish sauce and the sweetness of palm sugar. With a few variations, the same dish is called "bok l'hong" in Cambodia, "tam maak hoong" in Laos and "goi du du" in Vietnam. Thai curries such as "kaeng som", which are justly popular, also make use of unripe papaya.

Hermaphrodite. The species is naturally dioecious (which means that male and female plants depend on each other to bear fruit). However, selection has also produced hermaphrodite species which are able to produce fruit alone; so much so that almost all the plantations in the world are now made up of “self-sufficient” plants. Having said this, we should add that the male plants only produce pollen, while the female ones bear small fruits which, unless pollinated, are inedible.

India. This country is the world’s greatest producer of papaya; in fact, with its 6 million tons, it exceeds the production of Brazil, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic and Nigeria put together. The fruit which first arrived on the Indian subcontinent around 1550 via the Caribbean and then Malaysia, is now cultivated all the year around in many States (from Andhra Pradesh to Kerala comprising West Bengal).

Jam. Excellent jams and jellies can be made from papaya pulp: the simplest is that of Cameroon, where the only addition to the papaya pulp and sugar is lemon juice, while in India, recipe books suggest adding cardamom seeds. An unusual recipe from the Philippines contains the juice of calamondin (or kalamansi), a bitter-tasting citrofortunella hybrid. Andean cuisine also boasts a particular type of jam: called "dulce de papayeula" it adds vanilla and cinnamon to mountain papaya.

Kapaho. This variety grows on the Hawaii islands and in Costa Rica: it stands out for its medium/small fruit and yellow flesh of a particularly sweet flavour. Also from the Hawaii comes Kamiya, a dwarf variety with an orange-yellow flesh, which is juicy and very sweet. Both the Kapaho and the Kamiya belong to the “Solo” variety, one of the most ancient Hawaiian cultivars.

Leaves. Boiled papaya leaves frequently appear in West Indian cooking (Malay archipelago). They are also dried to prepare a herbal tea which would appear to have detoxing properties, as well as preventing malaria.

Mountain papaya. Typical of the Andes, and also known as Chilean papaya, arequipeña (Bolivia and Peru), karika, papayuelo and chamburo, this small, round yellow variety grows between 2000 and 3000 metres a.s.l. Its sour flavour recalls that of strawberry, pineapple and orange. It is excellent consumed fresh, but is also used to prepare jam, ice-cream, candied fruit and desserts or as an ingredient for soups and stews. There is also an Indonesian variety known as "Gedang memedi" (Bali).

Nutritional facts. One hundred grams of fresh papaya "weigh" no more than 39 calories. Rich in vitamins A, B, C (more than kiwi and carrots!) and P, it also has a high content of water (88%), fibre and antioxidants. Low in fats (0.3 g per 100 g of product) and proteins (0.5 g), it contains absolutely no cholesterol at all!

Origins. Indigenous to Central America (Mexico, Jamaica, Belize and Costa Rica), today it is widely grown in America, Asia, Africa (particularly in South Africa in the province of Mpumalanga), Australia, New Zealand, Israel and, of late, also in Spain (Canary Islands) and Italy (Sicily).

Papain. The fruit skin and the latex of the plant are rich in papain, an enzyme known to facilitate protein digestion. It is widely used to tenderize meat: as well as the juice from green papaya, which is poured onto barbecued meat, the dried extract now appears frequently among the ingredients of many products designed to tenderize stewing meat.

Quality. Never judge the quality of a papaya by its appearance. Often, in fact, the dark orange/brownish fruits taste heavenly, while the smooth shiny variety often turns out to be disappointing with a tough flesh and insipid flavour. On the other hand, avoid any fruits that are too ripe with a wrinkly skin and whitish spots. Generally speaking, the skin should confer a “warm” velvety sensation when touched, soft without being flaccid.

Relish. In a Caribbean-inspired recipe from Florida, the papaya flesh is combined with red pimentos, jalapeño chilli peppers, sugar and vinegar to make a chutney-like sauce for serving with fish gratin. On the subject of chutney... that of mango is well known, but it is no less delicious when made with papaya and, in many exotic cuisines, it definitely ousts the former.

Seeds. Papaya seeds have generated a lot of buzz as a potential health food. While there is no concrete evidence to back up this theory, neither are the seeds toxic so it does no harm to eat them. They certainly have an excellent flavour and, when dried and ground, may be used as an alternative to black pepper. On the subject of seeds... there is also a seedless variety of papaya called “Aurora”: it comes from the Hawaii islands and was developed in Israel using natural hybridization methods without genetic modification.

Treats. For the Christmas holidays, Venezuelans usually prepare the sweet known as "dulce de lechoza", that is to say, green papaya strips candied in sugar and cinnamon. On the other hand, dried papaya strips, without the addition of sugar, are typically made in the former British colonies: they are very sweet and usually associated with mango strips and guava rolls.

Unripe papaya. Unripe pulp is one of the ingredients necessary for making fermented papaya, because it is in this phase that the fruit develops its active ingredients and enzymes to the full. Fermentation takes place in green tea, fresh lemon juice and kombucha (yeast).

Vasconcellea quercifolia. In 2011, Philippine agricultural engineers produced a natural hybrid between the Carica papaya and Vasconcellea quercifolia (also called the "oak-leaved papaya") able to resist the "Ring Spot" virus, which is known to have literally devastated Hawaiian crops in the nineties.

Waimanalo. This variety from the Hawaii islands is larger than the above-mentioned Kapoho, with its sweet orangey-yellow pulp. It possesses a property which is by no means a negligible one, that of being able to keep for lengthy periods, which makes it ideal for the export market.

Xxx. Papaya, like many tropical fruits, is thought to be aphrodisiac. Its vitamin B content makes it a formidable ally in terms of “resistance”: by enhancing protein quality throughout the organism it apparently revitalizes the body and preserves a good deal of energy and vitality... got it?

Yellow. There are many papaya varieties with yellow pulp. As well as the aforementioned Hawaiian varieties, which are particularly sweet, those grown in Mexico have a slightly bitter note. "Yellow pawpaws" also come from Australia (Bettina la Petersen), India (Coorg Honey Dew) and America (Santa Cruz Grant).

Zapote. This Australian variety of "red papaya" is a fruit-producing cultivar with an extremely sweet bright red pulp. Similar, but of a more orangey red, is the Pusa Delicious. Today, 50 different varieties of yellow, orange, red and pink (such as the Singapore Pink) papayas are grown throughout the world.

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