Ingredient Secrets: Papaya

Popular in tropical climes, papaya is found most frequently in Thai and Hawaiian dishes. Thai cooking uses green papaya, and the ripe version is found most in Hawaiian dishes. Two basic varieties of papaya exist: Hawaiian and Mexican. Hawaiian is the most commonly found in supermarkets. They generally weigh a maximum of a pound and are more intense and smaller than their Mexican cousins. Papaya varieties vary in taste but most taste like a combination of cantaloupe, peach and pineapple, minus the tartness with just a hint or more of musk, depending on the type.
It’s a very mild fruit, about as soft as a mango when ripe. A ripe papaya will feel a bit like a ripe avocado and will yield to pressure in the same way. If it caves in at the stem, it’s overripe. The color of a ripe or nearly ripe papaya will be more yellow than green. Unripe papaya works well in savory dishes, while the ripe stuff, which is softer and doesn’t hold up as well, can be found in desserts.
Papaya starts softening quickly once it’s ready to eat, and can become mush in a hurry. It should be eaten soon but can be stored for about a day in the fridge once it’s cut up. You can also pop the whole fruit in the fridge for several days to slow down the ripening process, although the texture of the fruit will be slightly different. If you’re using the fruit in purees or recipes where the firmness doesn’t matter, you can freeze it in a sugar water solution, about two cups water to one cup sugar.
The seeds can be scooped out and used for other purposes. In some regions, the spicy seeds are dried and then crushed, used as a substitute for pepper. Interestingly, the seeds are thought to have a contraceptive effect on males.
There are actually a number of medical applications that derive from the fruit, in particular from the enzyme papain. This enzyme can also be found in powdered form in meat tenderizers. The natural fruit and its juices have been used for this purpose for quite some time. It’s great to add to marinades because it tenderizes while imparting flavor. The leaves are also edible, although their use is far less common.