The papaya, or papaw, is a delicious, succulent orange fruit that grows deep in the lush tropical forests of the Americas. With a thin yellow-green rind, inside the fruit is a rich and creamy orange, with a delicately sweet taste and round black seeds.
In the Western world, where the fruit has been widely embraced, papaya is treated like any other fruit. Its diced cubes can be used in fruit salads, or eaten by themselves. It is a common ingredient in papaya juice and smoothies, especially those with a tropical theme. The papaya even finds uses in fruit trifles, cakes, and even papaya pies.
However, in the Americas, the ancestral homeland of the papaya, and in Southeastern Asia, where the papaya is now commonly cultivated, the indigenous people have found a multitude of ways to eat the fruit, many of which may seem foreign or strange to the typical American ear. Used to considering papaya as only a sweet fruit to be eaten in desserts or snacks, the papaya actually has a significant culinary role in dishes such as curries and stews. A traditional Southeastern Asia dish that can be easily made at home is a simple papaya curry, with tropical flavors areas such as coconut, chilies, and cilantro. The green papaya is diced, cooked with coconut oil for fragrance, and then mashed and watered down to form a delicious curry paste.
Another recipe popular in Central America today is papaya stew. This recipe goes against our cultural perception of the papaya as a sweet fruit—it pairs up the green fruit with flavors like jalapeño and chilies, but also meats, something unconventional from our cultural perspective. The unripe papaya, when simmered, lends a unique thickness and fragrance to the stew that pairs up well with the other flavors. A dash of cocoa, a typical staple in areas like Costa Rica, completes this aromatic dish.
The papaya is a very versatile fruit, and though it has mainly been used a delicious and juicy fruit, it can also lend its flavor and texture to dishes like curries and stews. Keep an open mindset, and when papaya season rolls around again, maybe try making some new dishes. You never know what culinary wonders might lay in store when you view a fruit from a whole new cultural perspective.