Papaya is native to the tropical areas of Mexico, Central America, and South America. It is now cultivated in most countries with a tropical climate, thanks to early explorers. The fruit goes by several names. In the English-speaking islands, papaya is often called pawpaw, the French call it papaye, and some Spanish islands call it fruta bomba or lechosa.
You can find papaya growing throughout the Caribbean in backyards, in commercial groves or the wild. Even so, commercialization of the crop isn’t as common as one would think. The largest growers within the Caribbean region are Barbados, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, and Cuba.
Types of Papaya
There are two types of papayas: Hawaiian and Mexican. The most common types in U.S. grocery stores are the Hawaiian varieties. These fruits have a pear shape and weigh about a pound each. In general, papaya is hard and green when unripe and changes to yellow, orange, or red when ripe. The fruit can vary in size from a mere 6 inches to over 12 inches.
Papaya in Cooking
In Caribbean island cooking the unripe(or green) papaya is prepared and eaten as a vegetable with a flavor profile similar to summer squash. A few ways to prepare the unripe fruit include stuffed and baked, chutney, and relish. When ripe, the papaya is treated as a fruit and prepared as you would melons in a fruit salad or smoothies, for example. Our Home Cooking Expert, Peggy Trowbridge Filippone describes the flavor as sweet-tart and musky like that of apricots and ginger, sometimes with a slightly peppery bite.
The fruit and leaves of the papaya tree contain papain, which aids digestion, is used to tenderize meat, and used in cosmetics as a natural exfoliate. If you're lucky enough to find leaves in a market, you can use them to wrap your meat in and cook. The seeds are edible, too, though rarely used.