Papaya is a tropical fruit with orange-colored, sweet flesh and edible seeds that have a pepper-like flavor. It's used often in Asian, Thai, Caribbean, and Indian cuisines, either raw or cooked. Papaya can be found in a variety of dishes from salad and chutney to stir-fry and dessert. It's also tasty in beverages and smoothies. Choosing the ripest fruit is important for getting the best flavor and it has a short shelf life, so it needs to be prepared quickly.
What Is Papaya?
Papaya is native to Mexico and South America. It is also grown in tropical locations around the world and a common crop in Hawaii. The fruit is harvested when the skin is a yellow-green color, turning yellow as it ripens. The flesh inside is typically orange, though some varieties are pink or red. The black seeds are edible; the skin is not. Although the fruit can weigh up to 20 pounds, the average papaya in the market is about six inches long, pear-shaped, and weighs no more than two pounds. Papaya is also known as pawpaw, mamao, and tree melon.
Some recipes also use green papaya, which is fruit that is not fully ripe and treated more like a vegetable. These are typically found in Asian cuisines and available in markets that cater to those foods. The seeds are typically white and green papaya should be cooked before eating.
How to Cook With Papaya
Ripe papaya can be eaten raw. It can also be baked, sautéed, stir-fried, or puréed, depending on the recipe. When cut in half and hollowed-out, the skin also makes a nice serving dish. Papaya seeds can be rinsed under running water and dried, then ground and used like black pepper.
To prepare fresh papaya, cut it in half lengthwise, then remove and save the seeds. Use a melon baller to scoop out the flesh or eat it right out of the skin with a spoon. You can also remove the skin with a knife, then cut the flesh into slices or wedges. For fresh preparations, squeezing a little lime juice over papaya enhances the flavor.
What Does It Taste Like?
Papayas get sweeter as they ripen, so the taste will range from mild to rather sweet. The flavor is often compared to cantaloupe and mango. The flesh has a creamy texture that melts in your mouth.
Papaya is often found in fruit salads. It's also an interesting fruit to use in marinades, salsas, and chutneys, as well as savory dishes and tropical desserts.
Where to Buy Papaya
Fresh papaya is available year-round in most markets. It is generally easy to find and sold by the individual fruit. It can seem a little expensive compared to other fruits and the price is dependent on the season. The peak seasons for Hawaiian papayas (most common in U.S. markets) are from April through June and October through December. Some markets also carry chopped fruit in juice in the produce department. Papaya nectar is available canned and bottled.
Select fruits that are mostly yellow with a bit of green and let them fully ripen at home. Ripe fruit should be firm yet yield to gentle pressure, feel heavy for its size and have smooth skin with no blemishes. As long as they're not a result of bruises or cuts, a few black or moldy spots are okay and will not affect the flavor. The ripe papaya should have a sweet aroma. Avoid fruits that are overly soft unless you intend to purée and use immediately.
Papayas will ripen within a few days at room temperature, and even faster in a paper bag. Once ripe, it will quickly turn to mush if not properly stored. Leave the skin on while the fruit ripens. Ripe papayas should be refrigerated to slow down the ripening process; whole fruit should keep in a plastic bag for about a week.
To freeze, pack cut papaya in rigid containers or heavy-duty plastic freezer bags. Cover with a 30 percent sugar solution (4 cups water to 2 cups sugar) and freeze up to 10 months. The thawed fruit will be soft and best in a partially-thawed state for fresh applications. It will be fine for cooking, although not quite as firm as fresh. You can also pop the thawed fruit into a blender for a puree or add a bit of water for a juice. Frozen fruit is a great smoothie addition and can be used instead of ice.
Nutrition and Benefits
Papayas are a very healthful fruit. They're fat- and cholesterol-free, high in calcium, fiber, and potassium, and a good source of vitamins A, C, and E. Papain and chymopapain are enzymes found in papaya that can aid digestion and may help lower cholesterol.
Papaya vs. Mango
Papayas and mangoes are both tropical fruits that are often confused with one another. Papaya is more of a squash shape with an elongated neck, while the mango is a round oval. Where the papaya has yellow-green skin, a mango's is a gradient of green, red, and yellow. Cutting the two open really reveals the biggest difference as mango flesh is a bright yellow with a single, large seed. Mangoes are also sweeter fruits, with an interesting spicy-floral flavor. The two fruits are used in similar food preparations and often paired with one another.
There are many varieties of papaya grown throughout the world. Solo is the papaya varietal that was introduced to Hawaii and Barbados in the early 1900s. It is pear-shaped, between one and two pounds, and has red-orange, very sweet flesh. The cultivars developed from Solo papayas are those you'll most often find in markets. Today, Hawaii is well-known for Kamiya, Kapoho Solo, Rainbow, and Sunrise papayas; they vary slightly in size and sweetness.
Mexican Red and Mexican Yellow papayas are both very large, sometimes growing up to 10 pounds. The flesh color reflects the name and neither is as sweet as the Hawaiian varieties. Among other papayas, including those grown in Asian countries, the sizes and shapes vary even more, from very long varieties to small dwarf papayas.