The American pawpaw is a fruit native to North America. It grows on the continent's largest edible fruit tree and primarily found in the east, ranging from Florida to southern Canada. It is not as common or popular as it once was, though there is a growing interest in this often forgotten fruit. Pawpaw has a bright, tropical flavor that is enjoyed on its own. It's a delicious addition to desserts as well as recipes that typically call for bananas.
What Is Pawpaw?
The pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is indigenous to 26 states, from Nebraska to Florida and all the way to Ontario. It can grow up to 25 feet tall, reaching maturity and bearing fruit after four to eight years. This unique fruit belongs to the custard apple family. It is related to guanábana, sugar apple, and soursop, which typically grow in the more tropical climates of South America and the West Indies.
Pawpaws were a staple in European settlers' diets and famously eaten on the Lewis and Clark expedition. In the early 1900s, pawpaw was one of the most popular fall fruits around, but it fell out of favor and was largely forgotten sometime after that. The pawpaw has experienced a mild revival in recent years among researchers, food lovers, and plant breeders. There's even the annual Pawpaw Festival in Albany, Ohio, each September.
On the outside, the pawpaw is green with darkish speckles. The soft flesh inside is either a creamy whitish-taupe or brighter yellow with large dark seeds speckled about. The fruit is often eaten raw or added to sweet foods. Pawpaw seeds and skin need to be removed and not eaten because they are toxic to people when chewed. The cultivated fruit remains scarce in markets and can be expensive in comparison to more common fruits.
Pawpaw also goes by the names false banana, pawpaw apple, custard banana, and Hoosier banana.
How to Use Pawpaw
The best thing to do if you happen upon ripe pawpaw is to eat it raw: Peel away the dull shell, discard the large brown seeds, and enjoy the custard-like flesh.
Pawpaw works well in desserts, too, especially puddings and ice cream. You can often use pawpaw to replace bananas. Try it in a smoothie, cream pie, or fruity bread. Craft brewers also use pawpaw to create unique fruit beers.
What Does It Taste Like?
The taste of pawpaw is often described as a cross between a banana, kiwi, and a mango. It's a tropical fruit with a slightly bitter aftertaste but pleasant zing upon the first bite. The tangy flesh proves soft and pliable, easy to chew and slurp up right from the peel.
Recipes featuring pawpaw are rare because the fruit is often enjoyed raw. However, you can use it as a banana substitute in many recipes.
Where to Buy Pawpaw
It's not easy to find pawpaw because it's a rare fruit that doesn't cultivate as well as others. It's also delicate and tends to bruise easily, so it's not the best for shipping or grocery store shelves. It's sold by the pound and is not cheap.
If you happen to be in the Midwest or Mid-Atlantic regions in September and early October, check out the local farmers markets. It's your best bet to try this fruit. Alternatively, find someone who grows pawpaw or knows where to look for the green clusters and book a foraging expedition.
You don't really want to store pawpaw for long because it's not a fruit that lasts well off the tree. When you do find the fruit, leave it in the shell until ready to eat. You can also remove the flesh and keep it in the refrigerator in a sealed container for a few days. But overall, eat the pawpaws you get right away.
Pawpaw vs. Papaya
It's easy to confuse pawpaw and papaya because the latter is sometimes also called pawpaw. The key difference is where the fruit is grown: pawpaw is a North American fruit while the papaya is from the tropical regions of Mexico and South America. The two are not botanically related. Pawpaw tends to be smaller than papaya and looks more like an oblong, greenish-brown mango. While both have a tropical flavor, pawpaw leans toward banana, and papaya is more similar to mango. Papaya seeds are edible; pawpaw seeds are not.
Pawpaw fruit trees all stem from the original wild plant, a short, hearty, pest-resistant tree. Over the years, scientists have created some hybrids with names such as Sunflower, Taylor, Mary Foos Johnson, Mitchel, Davis, and Rebecca Gold. If you happen upon pawpaws, chances are they won't have any other name than the original. Seeking out varieties isn't as fulfilling as when you shop for apples.