Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: Should a waiter offer us a choice of fruit, we always decide to eat more payaya. Get to know this versatile tropical fruit, and we bet you will too.
Fun game for your next picnic: Ask everyone to visualize what type of plant papayas grow on. Having trouble? Picture coconuts growing on a coconut palm tree -- now substitute papayas in for the coconuts, and you’ve got a good idea of what the papaya plant looks like. That’s right: It’s a plant, not a tree. Although the plants have a central trunk, grow up to 30 feet high, and for all intents and purposes look exactly like trees, technically, these are large herbaceous plants.
More: Papayas are the source of papain, a meat tenderizer -- did you know that kiwifruit can be used to tenderize meat too?
The fruit is generally harvested when still green (and can be used in its unripe state), but if you're hoping to enjoy your papaya when it's ripe, look for specimens that have some yellow on the skin (3, below). Papayas will continue to ripen at room temperature (and you can put them in a paper bag to speed up the process), but if they're completely green, it’s unlikely that they will fully ripen. They’re ripe when they’re slightly soft (and for most types, when the skin is mostly or all yellow), at which point they can be refrigerated for up to a week. The ripe flesh (2 -- but ours isn't as ripe as it could be) comes in all the colors of a sunset: from golden yellow to fiery orange to salmon-red.
In the U.S., papayas are mainly grown in Hawaii, where their peak season is early summer and fall, but they can be found in grocery stores almost year round. If you're looking for a green papaya, check Asian markets.
If you’re willing to go to extremes for a perfect-tasting fruit, follow the technique Elizabeth Schneider learned from a Brazilian cooking teacher: “She scored the fruit lengthwise in quarters, cutting delicately through the skin, but not into the flesh, then turned the fruit onto its narrow stem end, set it in a glass so it wouldn’t tip, and instructed me to leave it for a day. It was certainly the sweetest papaya I’ve ever had in this country.”
More: Papayas are sometimes called pawpaws, but pawpaws are an unrelated fruit of their own.
Whether you're eating them ripe or green, or nibbling on the edible seeds (1, above), here are nine ways to start working more papayas into your repertoire:
- Use ripe papaya in a salsa with peppers and corn.
- Halved and de-seeded, the papaya forms its own bowl: Treat it like a small melon or avocado, and fill it up. (Grain salad? Coconut gelato? It's up to you!)
- Add chunks (4) of ripe papaya to a fruit salad.
- ChezHenry calls a ripe papaya, served chilled with a squeeze of lime, “a righteous start to your day.” We can't argue with that.
- Blend ripe papaya into smoothies or shakes.
- Use ripe papayas to make sorbet or ice cream.
- Make Thai green papaya salad with unripe papayas -- if Molly Wizenberg wants to make something every day of the summer, you know it has to be good.
- Add shredded green papaya to Pad Thai Spring Rolls, as edamame2003 recommends.
- Fernetaboutit finds the strong peppery taste of papaya seeds perfect for sprinkling on salads.
Tell us: How do you like to use papayas?
Photos by Mark Weinberg