A star in the universe of tropical fruits, the papaya (puh-PI-yah) rockets from seed to a 20-foot fruit-bearing tree in less than 18 months. It’s native to the lowlands of Central America. The Spanish and Portuguese propagated it on Pacific islands, further dissemination took it across the Atlantic, and today, it’s grown in tropical areas around the globe.
In appearance, individual strains vary wildly. One variety is yellow skinned, roughly the size and shape of a mango. Another is a green, football-shaped orb weighing up to 20 pounds. All papayas have a mild taste that could be described as somewhat peachy or melon-like. And all lend beautiful color to the plate, with flesh ranging from yellow-orange to a rich salmon color.
Slices of ripe papaya are common street food in tropical areas. Unripe fruit is used in salads, cooked like a vegetable or made into pickles. In tropical cultures, the bitter leaves are ingested to protect against malaria, and it’s believed that mosquitoes avoid people whose blood is not “sweet.”
Papayas contain a tenderizing agent called “papain,” a fact not lost on the ancient world. Traditionally, tough meats were cooked in papaya leaves. Today, many commercial meat tenderizers are made from papaya, and papaya juice is a frequent component of marinades.
Ripe papayas will yield slightly to pressure. Under-ripe fruit can be ripened at room temperature in a sealed paper bag. The blackish seeds are generally scooped from the center and discarded, but they have a peppery taste and can be pureed into your favorite vinaigrette.