Precious Papaya: Beat the rivals to a pulp


The powerhouse papaya is moving up in the tropical fruit ranks, giving mango, passion fruit and guava some stiff competition. The behemoth beauties, nicknamed “Fruit of the Angels” by Christopher Columbus, are starting to dominate the produce aisles and landing on top chefs’ culinary radar.

Here’s why. . .

Southern Mexico and Central America lay a solid claim to the origins of the exotic fruit with a musky aroma and buttery texture reminiscent of a liqueur infused cantaloupe.

The Mayans revered “The Tree of Life” that sprouted the mighty papaya. Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought the seeds to all corners of the world from the Philippines to India and Italy.

Although Hawaii and Florida are the only U.S. states that commercially cultivate the fruit, it is grown in all tropical climes. The most popular varieties are the green-skinned elliptical Mexican papaya that swells to about 10 pounds, and the more intensely flavored yellow-skinned Brazilian and Hawaiian fruits. These are pear-shaped with orange-pinkish flesh, topping out at 1 pound (although the Brazilian tends to be sweeter and more aromatic than its Hawaiian sibling).

Easy to swallow

For tender tummies (and aging guts), the luscious papaya flesh (and leaves) contains powerful enzymes called papain and chymopapain that act as a digestive aid by breaking down proteins (even more potent in unripened fruit).

By the same principle, papain has been used as a natural meat tenderizer for thousands of years. In addition, papaya is loaded with immune-boosting Vitamins C and A, folate, potassium, dietary fiber, bone-boosting calcium, blood-building iron, antioxidant Vitamin E, along with anti-inflammatory enzymes that provide relief to creaky joints and arthritic sufferers.

This low cal, nutrient packed fruit is also recommended for weight loss, an anti-aging and skin purifying face mask, along with a salve for healing wounds, burns and skin infections.

Words of papaya warning: the tropical treasure contains latex (particularly in the white sap), which might cause a reaction to those sensitive to the substance. While eating an excessive amount of papaya might cause an orange pigmentation (carotenemia) on the palms and soles. Standing advice: moderation.

Seeding Frenzy

Every part of the papaya is edible, including the glossy black seeds, with bitter peppery undertones, making a great salad dressing or marinade — or crushed and used as a pepper substitute. Scoop out the seeds and reserve, stuffing the hollow with grilled shrimp or chicken salad, wild rice pilaf or chili lime quinoa.

Dial up chicken fajitas, stirfries, Asian salads or slaws with papaya strips. Do a riff on gazpacho with pureed papaya. Bake a batch of papaya and raisin muffins or oatmeal bars.Toss up a tropical fruit salad blending papaya chunks, mango, kiwi and pineapple, drizzled with Grand Marnier and a dollop of honey whipped Greek yoghurt.

Cool your heels with a scoop of red papaya ice cream or sorbet, a frothy papaya mango smoothie or a frozen papaya daiquiri. Or eat it straight up with a splash of Meyer lemon juice. You can juice the leaves or brew them for a soothing tea, sauté or steam them as a change up from spinach for an immune-boosting digestive oomph.

Pick a Winner

Hawaiian and Brazilian papayas are ripe when the skin is a bright yellow hue. If they are yellow for the most part with splashes of green, they will ripen at home at room temperature in a brown paper bag. Once ripe, refrigerate for up to one week. Pick a firm fruit that gives slightly to pressure, with a smooth, glabrous skin that also has a good solid heft for its size.

Tropical Tidbits

• The papaya is enjoyed in Europe and Australia (pawpaw), Cuba (fruita bomba), France (papaye) and Brazil (mamao).

• Botanically speaking, the papaya is a berry.

• Papaya trees are actually humungous herbs.

• A small papaya provides 300 percent of the recommended daily dose of Vitamin C.

• Papaya has been touted as nature’s Viagra, the enzyme arginine stimulating blood flow and jumpstarting the hard wiring.’

Drunken Papaya Cream

—Samir Da Silva, Head Gaucho Chef at the Gaslamp’s Fogo de Chao has shared his sweet Brazilian treat.

1 ripe Brazilian papaya (if not available, use Hawaiian)

2 scoops of vanilla bean ice cream

A generous pour of Crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur)

A slice of papaya, edible orchid or fresh mint leaves for garnish

Peel papaya, remove seeds and puree in a blender until creamy. Spoon into a stemmed chalice glass or goblet, top with ice cream scoops, and drizzle with liqueur. Garnish with mint leaves, orchid or fresh papaya slices.

—For more papaya recipes, e-mail