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Try a Papaya

by Francine Tormey

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 17, 18, and 28

When was the last time you were seduced by a papaya? If you're a Toxotrypana curvicauda, that is a female fruit fly, chances are the green papaya's scent encouraged a rendezvous with a handsome suitor. If you enter into a talent contest with the papaya, you'll probably lose. This popular fruit is also used as a digestive aid, meat tenderizer, facial mask, and contact lens cleaner. The enzyme papain, found in papaya, is also an important ingredient in the brewing industry and in rubber manufacturing.

The Chinese call this fruit fan mu gua or foreign tree melon. It is also known as fan guaor foreign melon and wan shou guo for long life fruit. Worldwide, the most widespread name is that given by the English and Spanish, namely, the papaya. Its birthplace is ambiguous and may have originated in Central or South America, the West Indies, or the Caribbean. The name stems from the Carib word ababai meaning 'the fruit of the angels.' When Christopher Columbus arrived in the West Indies, he made an entry in his journal noting the physical strength of the natives who lived primarily on this melon-shaped fruit.

This delectable fruit belongs to the botanical division of family of Magnoliophyta, the class Magnoliopsida and the order Violales. The latter is the violet order of flowering plants consisting chiefly of shrubs and trees but also herbaceous plants. Violales have as many as twenty-four families, twelve considered core, of which Caricaceae is one with four genera and thirty or so species. Carica papaya, now popular in southeast Asia is one of the three genera of fruit that once were limited to tropical America.

Papaya plants are often referred to as trees, although their leafless and insufficiently woody trunks (which do not harden) prevent them from being classified as such. But what else can you call a slender, limbering stalk that rises as high as thirty-three feet in the air? Papaya plantations are one of my favorite agricultural landscapes. If you are lucky enough to see one you'll be inspired to raise your shoulders and giggle. The lean and lanky ladies and gents are void of leaves and branches from root to neck. At their summit, they display a comical spread of mammoth fernlike leaves, underneath which are suspended clusters of cylindrical-shaped fruit. This gives the 'tree' the appearance of being naked, except for the wearing of a hat.

Papaya plants can bear up to thirty fruits per year for three or four years, they usually die by the fifth year and must be replaced. New plants bear fruit within a year after planting, and they produce fruit year round. In tropical climates, plantations yield the highest production of fruit per acre and an income second only to the banana. The plants themselves can be male or female or bear both male and female flowers. These are called hermaphrodites, and these plants can also shift sex from male to female and vice versa.

The enormous popularity of this tropical treasure has made it a savvy and speedy traveler. Abundant East Indies plantations supplied seeds to the Philippine Islands and introduced seeds to Nepal in 1626. There is no record of papaya's first appearance in Japan or China prior to the 19th century, yet today it is most common in southeast China and valued for its fruit and for its many medicinal aspects.

In the Chinese system of medicine, papaya is neither warm nor cool. It is believed to stimulate circulation, relax joints and muscles, and improve the flow of breast milk in nursing mothers. For these lactating women, it is common to simmer five hundred grams of papaya and a pig's trotter and drink the resulting soup to increase their breast milk.

To diminish nausea and vomiting when pregnant, Chinese medical practitioners advise women to roast papaya leaves and crush the ashes to fine dust then dissolve three grams in a glass of water and drink this decoction two or three times a day. As an aid in healing renal colic, kidney stones, and gall stones, the recommendation is to combine thirty grams of male papaya flowers with fifteen grams of lard, simmer it and drink as soup. To cure athlete’s foot, according to Chinese medicine, combine one large papaya leaf, ten pomelo leaves, thirty grams of da feng gai also known as Blumea balsamifera and thirty grams of lu ying, which is Sambucus chinensis, then simmer them together in water. Wash the infected feet frequently with the resulting liquid.

The Chinese also use papaya to soothe aching muscles and stiff joints. For this they take a whole papaya, slice off its base, and scoop out seeds. They fill the cavity with rice wine, reattach the base firmly with toothpicks and simmer the whole fruit in warm water for an hour. The recommendation is to store this in a bottle and drink one to two tablespoons twice daily.

Papayas are pear-shaped, also oval-shaped, and they vary in weight from less than a pound to twenty pounds or more. In the United States, most fruits are from Hawaii, are pear-shaped, and dubbed Solo; they weigh just over a pound. Mexico offers the football-shaped Meridol or Maradol varieties; they weigh one to seven pounds. These varieties dominate Western markets, with the hermaphroditic plants bearing pear-shaped papayas and the male or female cross-pollinated plants bearing rounded or oval shaped ones.

The skin color of the papaya ranges from green to orange to golden yellow. Halved, the interior reveals a striking contrast of deep orange or rose flesh surrounding a cavity of black or dark gray seeds that resemble peppercorns. They are encased in a shiny gelatinous coating. Papaya is a fabulously versatile food that can complement many dishes, including beef, veal, pork, chicken, and seafood.

To experience the taste of paradise treat yourself to a raw, ripened papaya unaccompanied by food or condiments. Halve the papaya, remove its seeds, and scoop out the moist, sweet flesh with a spoon. Lacking acidity, it is enhanced by a drizzle of lime; but I prefer mine solo. Every time I eat one I am whisked away to paradise...and the airfare is great. Papaya is not only delicious, it is nutritious. One medium fruit weighing about two-thirds of a pound provides approximately thirty grams of carbohydrates, almost two grams of protein, more than six thousand international units of Vitamin A, seven hundred eighty milligrams of potassium, just under two hundred milligrams of Vitamin C, and only one hundred and seventeen calories. And, they are naturally low in sodium.

Pureed papaya serves as a base for marinades, ice cream, ices, or sherbet. Boiled unripened green papaya makes a great vegetable. Use it in one of the recipes prepared by Flavor and Fortune’s test kitchen editors that follow.

Papaya seeds, said to have digestive and diuretic properties, also cleanse the intestines. Their taste is too pungent to chew on more than a few. Alternatively, wash them in a colander to remove the pulp and spread them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake on lowest temperature until crisp and dry. Cool, place in pepper mill, and use them as you would black pepper.

Papaya owes its solid reputation as a meat tenderizer to papain, a proteolytic enzyme that breaks down muscle fiber and connective tissue proteins into smaller molecules. It is the active ingredient in commercial meat tenderizing preparations, but its effect is limited. It inactivates at refrigerator temperatures and when heated. Since it does not fully penetrate meat, food may be tender or mushy on the surface and tough at the center. Piercing meat to increase penetration is futile; the resultant loss of juices renders it more tough than had it not been pierced.

Papayas have embraced us for centuries, but only in the past several decades have we discovered their truly remarkable properties. As we continue to marvel at their myriad talents, there is one thing we certainly must do...try a papaya!
Francine Tormey is a freelance legal secretary who enjoys writing about food and nutrition. She has worked in private practice as a Licensed Massage Therapist and as a sales representative for a science publisher. She is completing a Master's degree in Creative Writing at Queens College.
Papaya in Soup
2 green papaya
2 large pieces rock sugar, or more or less, to taste
2 ounces white cloud ear fungus, soaked in cold water for one hour.
1 cup chicken stock
1. Peel both papaya and remove the seeds. Then dice the flesh into one-inch square-shaped pieces.
2. Bring pieces of sugar and one cup of cold water to the boil and simmer until sugar is totally dissolved.
3. Trim any tough center pieces away from cloud ear fungus. Then add them and chicken stock and another cup of cold water to the pot of sugar water and bring to the boil.
4. Pour this entire mixture into a heat-proof bowl and set in a steamer over two inches of simmering water. Add the papaya and steam for three quarters of an hour. Pour into small bowls and serve immediately.
Serves six.
Chicken with Papaya
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 pounds chicken thigh meat on the bone, chopped into two-inch pieces
2 slices fresh ginger, cut into thin slivers
2 cloves garlic, sliced then cut into thin slivers
4 cups chicken broth
2 green papayas, seeded, peeled, and cut into one-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 dash white pepper or 1 teaspoon dried ground papaya seeds
4 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with an equal amount of cold water
1. Heat oil and fry chicken pieces, skin side down only until the skin is browned, then remove and set aside. Do only a few pieces at a time.
2. Fry ginger and garlic in the oil remaining in the pan until aromatic then return the chicken to the pan, add the broth, papaya pieces, and both sauces and simmer for forty-five minutes. Add the pepper or papaya seeds and the cornstarch mixture and cook over high heat until thick and clear, then serve in bowls as you would a stew.
Serves eight.
Spare Ribs with Papaya
4 pounds spare ribs
2 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon chili paste with garlic, optional
3 Tablespoons dark or mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 green papaya, peeled and cut into large cubes
1 almost ripe papaya, peeled and cut into large cubes
1. Rub the spare ibs with hoisin sauce, five spice powder and the chili paste, if used. Set aside for half an hour. Then mix the soy sauce and sugar and rub them again, then let the ribs set another half an hour.
2. Heat oil and fry the ribs until brown on all sides; be careful not to burn them. Then add one cup of water and simmer uncovered for twenty minutes, then add the green papaya and continue to simmer for another twenty minutes. Add additional water only if and when none is left.
3. Add the ripe papaya pieces and cook ten more minutes, then serve.
Serves eight to ten persons.

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