|My first recollection of eating a papaya was at the old Nut Tree
restaurant on I-80 on the way to somewhere. Honestly, I don't remember who I was with, where I was going, or why I was at that once-famous landmark.
But I do have a vivid recollection of these bell-shaped slices of yellow, tender, almost custard-like fruit. To add further exotic mystery to the fruit collection, there was also star fruit and kiwi on that breakfast plate. (Some of this is coming back ... I'm having a hazy memory
of a college girlfriend and a trip to Tahoe. In any event, the meal was obviously more memorable than the company or destination.)
At that time, about 25 years ago, the papaya was still an exotic, tropical fruit with a hefty price tag. Not so today, with several varieties available from a number of different countries year-round.
The history of the papaya is a bit blurry. Most folks assume they originated in Hawaii, as the Aloha State is a major supplier. And although they can be found in many parts of the tropics, they probably originated in Central America somewhere's.
They grow in clusters at the top of a palm-like tree. It's not really even a tree in a strict sense. It's more of a bark-less shaft upon which big leaves protrude. Under said leaves the fruits do dangle!
LOTS of different varieties exist, in different sizes, shapes and flavors. But in our market you will only find three basically. In my own taste preference from one to three, they are:
The Sunrise/Strawberry variety. These are the fairly common bell-shaped varieties that are about eight or so inches long. The outside ripens to a mainly yellow with a touch of green. Now their insides are a beautiful salmon color. The flavor is tropically sweet with a creamy
and slightly drier texture. Here is one major advantage to this variety. It is far more flavorful at an under ripe stage than the regular yellow fleshed variety, the Solo. Even if it is one-third green the flavor is amazingly good.
They come from Hawaii, Costa Rica and also Brazil. The Brazilian fruit tends to have a blemish-free skin, whereas the Costa Rican can be rougher.
The Hawaiian papaya usually falls somewhere in between. Strict appearance does not affect flavor, just eyeball look ability.
The already mention Solo variety is the standard bell-shaped papaya most folks picture as a papaya. A previous Solo variety was introduced to Hawaii way back in the late 1700's. But it was not until the 1920's that any kind of marketing of this fruit began.
In my opinion, the Solo needs to be pretty darned ripe (yellow) to have that island breeze, grass skirt kind of flavor. I'll pick the Sunrise variety most of the time.
For either of these two varieties, keep this in mind. The fruit ripens from the blossom end to the stem end. If the whole thing is green it will take some home ripening to be yummy.
Keep it warm, but out of the sun, just like you'd ripen an avocado. After two or three days it
should be fine.
Ripe fruit will have a bit of "give" to it, although the above mentioned Sunrise variety was hard but still tasty. Do not confuse overall give, with an over-the-hill "too soft" fruit. I see shoppers pass up top-flight fruit
because they think it is too soft. What may happen sometimes, is that there will be an actual bruise, a noticeable soft spot. These will be soft through to the cavity. Pass on them. But overall softness signals a very yummy fruit.
The third category is commonly called Mexican papaya. This includes two varieties the Maradol and the Red Lady. They are football shaped, and can weigh in at 10 pounds and better. Very beefy fruits, they will often be displayed cut in pieces and wrapped in plastic.
They have the same smooth texture as smaller papayas, but their flavor is more earthy. Green in color, the skin turns a burnt orange when ripe. The best way to describe their look is "ugly". The skin can be pock-marked and scarred. Heck, if you
dangled around in stiff tropical breezes, you'd be less-than-scenic yourself!
When selecting a Mexican papaya that is already cut and wrapped, choose the one that has the deepest salmon/red color. A pale red, or worse, a pinkish color signals an under ripe fruit. When choosing a whole, uncut fruit, take the one that has the most burnt
orange skin color and an overall "give" to the fruit. Mexican papayas are very hardy and do not over ripen quickly. If you have a firm fruit, they will ripen at room temperature, just like the smaller Sunrise and Solo varieties.
Here is one thing that my experience has taught me. Some Maradol papayas have areas on the skin that are covered with black dots. It kind of looks like a BB blast. Coupled with this, the fruit will be hard to the touch (an unripe signal) but may even show decent orange color (a
ripe signal.) Often times when I cut these, the flesh is hard and tasteless. I really don't know what it is. Maybe some viral affliction or something. All I know is that it is a disappointing flavor. But remember, some surface bumps,
bruises and pockmarks are passable.
The best way to eat papaya is raw in a dessert, in fruit salad mixed with other tropical goodies, or just sliced plain on its own.
The Maradol's earthiness is complimented well by a fresh squeeze of lime. I do not add lime to the Solo or Sunrise.
To wake up your mouth some, sprinkle papaya with cayenne pepper!
Papayas contain an enzyme called papain which tenderizes meat. Include the flesh with a marinade for a fruity flavor accent. Papaya is also good for digestion-hence the dessert angle.
Oh. The seeds are also edible! They taste peppery, like watercress. Toss them in a salad or crush them and add to a salad dressing.
The fruit itself has lots of vitamin C and A, along with potassium and folic acid.
As a tropical fruit, they are always in season, but spring and fall gives us a good dose of fruit. The Solo and Sunrise are usually more expensive. The bulky, less attractive, but tasty Maradol are cheaper. All of them are luscious fruits ... give 'em a go.
PS--For you tropical fruit lovers check out "Floribbean Flavors" an amazing cookbook by a well seasoned produce pro, Chef Tony Merola. It includes recipes for exotic and not-so-exotic fruits. Log onto his website at www.cheftony.com for more info.