In the grocery store last week, I had a life changing moment. I was walking through the produce section, ignoring the tempting tropical fruit stand, intent on my quest to try and eat locally as often as possible. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted them. Five sirens in an ocean of fruit, calling out to me and me alone. Their song made me blind to everything else around me. They were five softball sized papayas, not the giant Mexican variety that are readily available on the mainland, but small and beautiful papayas like I grew up with. I picked one up and cradled it lovingly in my palms. Minutes must have gone by as I smelled it, squeezed it, whispered to it, “Are you from Hawaii? Can it really be?” I turned it over and sure enough, a sticker with the image of Diamond Head smiled at me from the dimpled flesh of the fruit. “Screw eating local!” I squealed, frightening the young mother who quickly shielded her daughter from the crazy papaya lady. I quickly put all five in my basket. Then reason reared its ugly head and I hesitantly checked the price on the bin.
“Three dollars!? I had a whole tree of these back home for free! Three dollars for one!?” I knew that I couldn’t justify all three, but one, just one beautiful, perfect papaya. I could justify that. “Besides,” I told myself. “I’ll write a blog post on papayas. Then it’s for business.” Satisfied with my reasoning, I inspected each one, feeling their weight, smelling for any hint of over ripeness. I picked the one I determined to be the winner, and headed gleefully home.
Papayas and I have a long history. Going into Middle School was tough for me, not only was I new to the school, new to being a teenager and new to that dreaded change in hormones, but I was new to Hawaii. Moving to Hawaii is a lot like moving to a foreign country. Though I had lived in foreign countries before, I was in that gawky and self conscious stage where any unknown is determined a nightmare.
But on our second day in this unknown paradise, we went to visit the house we would soon live in. The first person I met was a girl named Holly, and she gave me my first taste of papaya. There was a papaya tree in the neighborhood, and right near it was a lemon tree. We each picked a papaya, then she grabbed a lemon. She pulled a spoon from her pocket and used it the cut through the soft skin of her papaya, then handed the dripping spoon to me to do the same. Inside, the fruit was a golden orange with a hollow center filled with tiny peppercorn-like seeds.
She demonstrated how to scoop the seeds out and then peeled the lemon and squeezed some of its juice over each of our papaya halves. Finally, it was time to eat. We took turns with the spoon, scooping bits of fruit from the skin. As juice ran down my chin I used the skin of the papaya like a cup to catch each drop.
Holly filled me in on her favorite places to eat, why you can’t really ride bikes in our neighborhood, what happens on “Kill Haole Day “, and how to catch waves on a boogie board. I finally felt like I had an inside scoop on what my life in this new unknown might look like. Sticky, messy, but lots of fun.
From that day on papaya was my favorite fruit. I would want it for breakfast, an after school snack, or even dessert. If I happened across a papaya tree on a hike, it didn’t matter if I was full. I’d grab one whip out my knife, and eat the soft and juicy fruit on the trail. I’d crunch on the bitter seeds (Wait, you ask, can you eat papaya seeds? Yes, I’ll explain momentarily) and gnaw on the inside of the skin to get at every last bit of the sweet flesh.
On a trip to California with some friends eight years ago, we came across the Mexican variety in a grocery store. “Giant papaya!” We all yelled and bought one to share. Unfortunately the sweetness we were expecting was nowhere to be found. It was
bland and slightly bitter. A bitter disappointment.
So if you happen to find a Hawaiian papaya in your grocery store, don’t pass it up! So what if you don’t know how to cut a papaya, I’ll teach you! Simply slice through the papaya lengthwise, stem end and all. The fruit is so soft, you can even use a spoon or fork, though a knife is easiest. Next use a spoon (or your fingers if you don’t mind getting messy) to scoop out those beautiful seeds. Don’t throw the seeds away, eating papaya seeds is an acqiured taste for some, but if you don’t like the slight bitterness you can dry them spread out on a plate and put them in a pepper grinder. They make a lovely gourmet pepper for finishing off dishes like salads and pastas.
The next question I always get from those of you trying to save lots of money (like me) by not wasting any part of their food is, can you eat papaya skin? The answer is yes, but you may not like the taste. I find it rather bitter so don’t eat them. If you have a sensitive digestive system they can also cause some issues (dare I use the D word?), but they aren’t actually harmful.
The tip in how to prepare papaya like a local, is a squeeze of fresh lemon. I knew a lot of people with papaya trees in their backyard, and several of them had a lemon tree nearby. The two go so well together, the sour lemon juice makes the sweetness of the papaya even more intense. The best ratio is the juice of half a lemon for each papaya. Don’t squeeze it all it once, start with just enough to coat the surface of the flesh, once you start eating away the surface, add lemon juice as you need it.
Last but not least, because I have to prove to you that I really did buy this papaya just to teach you all I could about it (okay not really but don’t tell my budget!), let’s talk about the papaya’s health benefits. A lot of people in Hawaii have told me that eating a papaya a day, skin seeds and all cured their cancer, warts, migraines, etc. I’m not going there. If there’s not scientific proof, I say good for you but I’m not going to count on it doing the same for me. (Fortunately I don’t have any of those ailments to worry about!)
Papayas are so full of Vitamin C that one papaya has more than triple the recommended daily value! They’re also packed with folate, fiber, potassium and vitamin A. They’re very good for digestion (especially the skin which is where the D word comes in if you eat too much). They’re also rich in lycopene which has been shown in studies to reduce the risk of prostate cancer. They’re one of nature’s super foods and thinking of how many I ate in Hawaii, and how often I get sick since moving to Washington, I may become a believer in the papaya health movement!
So if you get a chance to try a Hawaiian papaya, let me know what you think. I’d love to hear it!
serves 2 (or 1 if you don’t feel like sharing)
1 Hawaiian Papaya
1/2 fresh lemon
Cut the papaya in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and tough membranes holding the seeds. Slice the lemon half into two wedges. Squirt a little juice over each papaya half.
Use a spoon to scoop the flesh from the papaya skin, add more lemon juice as needed.
Approximate cost/serving: Cost me $3.10 but I was nice and split it with Eric so $1.55 a serving. A pricey but healthy indulgence.
Vegetarian/Gluten Free: Yes and vegan too.
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