Latin name: Carica papaya
Uses: fresh or dried fruit, nutritional supplement
Besides being in their own family, papayas are honestly a very cool fruit. Visually beautiful in every life stage, they’re a botanical berry (all the hip ingredients are), and can be male, female, or self-pollinating (though male trees do not produce fruit).
Why is papaya healthy?
With high levels of vitamin C, A, folate, and fiber, papayas can help support a strong immune system, reduce inflammation, and keep hair, skin, and eyes healthy. They also contain papain, a unique enzyme that breaks down amino acids. Papain makes papayas a powerful digestion aid, especially beneficial for individuals who have difficulty digesting protein.
What does papaya taste like?
With deep yellow, orange, or coral-red flesh, ripe papaya is soft and juicy, with mildly sweet flesh that tastes almost like a tropical cantaloupe. Its black seeds are edible and slightly peppery. Unripe (green) papaya is dense and slightly sour, lending itself to slicing or shredding.
Where does papaya grow?
Papaya is a New World crop originating in the tropics of Mesoamerica (likely southern Mexico). Wild forms of the plant still exist in these regions, and people have been growing papaya there since before Spanish conquest. Papaya need warmth and humidity to thrive (but sandy, well-drained soils), and nowadays grown in tropical countries around the world. India leads worldwide production. The trees grow fast but not for long — they only live for about 20 years.
How do I prepare papaya and what do I pair it with?
The easiest way to approach a papaya is by slicing it lengthwise and then scooping out the seeds with a spoon. Depending on how ripe it is, you can peel and shred it (if it’s green) and mix with lime juice, chiles, peanuts, and palm sugar to make Thai som tam (fish sauce and pounded dried shrimp are also traditionally added) or sub out the peanuts for shredded carrots and make the Filipino pickle atchara. Chunks of green papaya are also traditionally added to the Filipino soup tinola.
If ripe, you can peel and cube or slice papaya to add to salads. It’s lovely with pineapple and coconut, or combined with avocado and red grapefruit. Thinly slice papaya and top with a few shaved serrano peppers, a drizzle with a grassy olive oil, and a sprinkle of Himalayan pink salt for a vegan crudo.
And don’t throw away those seeds! Smash them in a mortar and pestle to add zest to marinades and dressings, or dry and powder them to use like black pepper. Their slightly horseradish-y pungency makes papaya seeds perfect for heirloom tomato salads or sprinkled on a bloody mary.
Papayas (and pineapples, which also contain digestive enzymes) are sometimes used as meat tenderizers. You can use papain’s powerful enzymatic action in your beauty routine, too. Purée a papaya and smear some on your face for a gentle (and delicious) exfoliating mask.