People seem to have a love/hate relationship with papayas. When ripe, their soft and creamy flesh is the color of a tropical sunset – the love. And, when ripe, they exude a somewhat musky smell mixed with a sweetness that leaves the taster wondering if they like it or not – the possible hate. And yet, it is the fourth most popular tropical fruit in the world after bananas, oranges and mango; and has found its way into many dishes around the world.
It grows on a tree-like-plant with flowers that look like plumeria, each yielding one oblong fruit that starts out green and turns yellow/orange as it ripens. Papayas are native to Central America and Northern South America with current cultivation extending to the more tropical parts of the world.
One can guess from the bright pink and yellow flesh that this fruit is a very good source of vitamins A and C, and, surprisingly, of folate, too. It is also a good source of fiber (3 grams per one cup cubed) and potassium. In that same one cup cubed, there are only 55 calories, 14 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of protein and 0 grams of fat.
Papayas contain an enzyme, papain, which helps breakdown proteins. Not only is this proteolytic enzyme useful as a meat tenderizer in marinades, but it may also aid in digestion, breaking down proteins in our digestive tract. Further human studies are needed to confirm the efficacy of this enzyme as mixed results from current studies are reported. Additionally, there appears to be some conflict as to whether papain is most concentrated in the ripened or unripe fruit. Our thoughts – eat both! Additionally, the decent fiber content also promotes a healthy digestive tract [i].
You may have heard that dried leaves of the papaya tree are made into dietary supplements thought to improve the immune system and platelet counts, have antimicrobial properties and prevent side effects of chemotherapy. However, Memorial Sloan Kettering notes that most studies have been conducted on animals and test tubes and that human studies are needed to confirm findings [ii].
What we can speak to confidently is the fact that the tropical sunset colored flesh hints at this fruit’s carotenoid and antioxidant content that promote general well being. The antioxidants, along with the healthy dose of fiber and potassium conspire for the benefit of good cardiovascular health. Vitamins A and C promote skin and mucosal cell rejuvenation, while folate also positively contributes to cellular metabolism. Additionally, vitamin C supports the immune system. Once again, one can never go wrong eating whole foods.
Season, Selection and Storage
While there is a slight peak season in early summer and fall, the fruits can be found on the trees almost year round. Unlike other fruits, the “ripeness” of a papaya is a measure of how you plan to enjoy the fruit. An “unripe” papaya will be green and hard and can be used in a variety of Asian style dishes. As the fruit “ripens”, it becomes sweeter and softer; however, avoid those that are overly bruised. One can ripen an unripe papaya by leaving it out on the counter. Once ripe, whether you cut it or leave it whole, it is best kept in the refrigerator to prevent it from spoiling too quickly and should be consumed within a few days.
- 2 Tablespoons mustard powder, preferably Coleman’s
- 1/4 Cup Dijon mustard
- 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar or plum wine vinegar
- 1/2 Cup honey, plus more as needed
- 1 1/2 Pounds papaya, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
- 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice, or to taste
- 24 Large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- Cayenne pepper
- 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- Lime wedges for serving
- Start a charcoal or gas grill or broiler; make sure the fire is very hot, and adjust the rack so that it is as close to the heat source as possible. [Note: if you do not have a grill, the shrimp can also be cooked on a hot skillet.]
- Meanwhile, make the papaya mustard. Whisk together the mustards and vinegar in a small bowl until the mustard powder is dissolved; let sit while you proceed. Put the honey in a small heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until the honey bubbles, thickens, and darkens slightly, about 7 minutes.
- Turn the heat to medium and add the papaya. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the papaya water evaporates and the mixture becomes mushy, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and immediately stir in the mustard mixture. Season to taste with salt and lime juice and set aside.
- Brush the shrimp with the oil, then sprinkle with salt and cayenne. Grill for 2 or 3 minutes per side, turning once. Serve the shrimp, garnished with the cilantro, with the papaya mustard and lime wedges on the side.
[i] Renee, Janet. Papaya for Digestion. Last updated September 23, 2015. Livestrong.com.
[ii] Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Integrative Medicine/ About Herbs, Botanicals & Other Products. Papaya Leaf.
[iii] SELF Nutrition Data. Papayas, raw.
[iv] Grilled Shrimp with Papaya Mustard recipe by Jean-Georges Vongerichten from Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges.