The papaya originated in Central and South America but now thrives in many countries with tropical or near tropical climates. When Columbus discovered the fruit on his travels, he described it as “the fruit of the angels.” Unlike some tropical fruits, the papaya appeals to most palates, and is quite easy to obtain even in countries where it does not grow well.
Papaya trees can grow to approximately 32 feet (10 m) tall. They have no branches, and the fruits, which produce year round, grow directly on the trunk of the tree. Papayas can be fairly large, sometimes as much as 20 inches (50.8 cm) long.
The fruit is sometimes round in shape, or may be more pear-shaped depending upon the variety and growing conditions. As available in stores, the papaya is generally not quite so long. Most have an average length of 7 inches (17.78 cm). The fruit is remarkably dense and may weigh up to a pound (approximately half a kilogram).
When fully ripe, the papaya has a yellowish to orange skin that is somewhat hard and not edible. Unripe papayas may be used in some recipes, but generally are not consumed. The interior of the fruit is deep orange, the taste sweet, and the texture soft. It is an excellent addition to the diet, as it contains a high amount of Vitamins A, C, and E, and folic acid. The papaya is also rich in dietary fiber and has antioxidant properties.
Black seeds mark the middle of the fruit. The seeds are not poisonous and many enjoy eating them. They are spicy, and in some cultures are finely ground to replace pepper. Others find the taste of the seeds a bit oily and bitter and simply discard them.
Papayas have long been known for their properties in improving digestion. The enzyme papain is extracted when the papaya is still unripe, and can be put into capsule or chewable form. Many swear by the papaya enzyme as an excellent alternative to less natural digestive aids like Tums®.
Papain can be used as a meat tenderizer as well, making tough meat more palatable. Papain is sometimes used with lime in ceviche. Ceviche is chopped fish cooked by the citric acid in lime, and the addition of papain can speed up the process.
The papaya makes a wonderful addition to fruit salads, and also is delightful consumed as is. Recipes abound to make more use of the fruit. Papaya can be used as an addition to chutney or salsa. It can be stuffed with shrimp and baked. When used in smoothies, ice creams and pies, it adds tropical flavor to dessert offerings. There are many Mexican and South American dishes including the papaya, since it proliferates in these regions and is frequently a daily part of meals.