Among the many new sights and sounds discovered by Spanish explorers coming to America for the first time, there were some new tastes as well (via American Indian Health and Diet Project AIHDP). Without a doubt, one of the best discoveries they made when disembarking in Central and South America was papaya.
Papaya is a tropical fruit that typically has a green-yellow exterior with rich coral flesh inside. Martha Stewart notes that it has a cluster of pepper-like seeds inside. It’s regarded for its sweet, tropical flavor when it is ripe, as well as its versatility. It is often paired with dark chocolate for a luxurious dining experience.
According to AIHDP, the tropical fruit is rich in the enzyme papain, which is used as a meat tenderizer and aids digestion. Different parts of the plant and fruit can also be used for a variety of medicinal purposes. For example, in Brazil, papaya flowers are believed to aid with low blood pressure.
While papaya may originate from Central and South America, its popularity with European explorers gave the crop legs as it traveled with them around the world and fueled a global appetite for the delicious fruit, per Food Print.
According to Food Print, papaya was first introduced to Asia in the 17th century by Dutch and Portuguese explorers. The tropical fruit quickly became a key component of the South Asian diet. In India, for example, the green unripe fruit is used to make a variety of dishes, including tutti-frutti candies (via Instructables). Fast forward to today, and Atlas Big reports that India has become the world’s top papaya-growing country because the fruit thrives in the country’s climate (via Economic Times). India produces more than 6 million tons of papaya every year and outpaces the next closest producer, the Dominican Republic, by nearly 5 million tons.
According to the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS), one of the reasons for India’s great success as a papaya producer in recent decades is the popularity of the “Red Lady” papaya, which grows high-quality fruit. Another important factor is India’s appetite for papaya. The ISHS noted that as of 2016, very few of India’s papaya crops were being exported. Instead, they were sold within the country.
One reason for papaya’s popularity is its many health benefits. In addition to being a sweet and delicious treat, Healthline reports that papaya provides many essential nutrients and can have significant health benefits such as reducing inflammation, reducing cancer risk, and improving heart health. According to Real Simple, a single small papaya boasts a single day’s recommended supply of vitamin C. It also possesses vitamins A and E, which serve as antioxidants. And that’s not all; papayas contain the enzymes papain and chymopapain, which help break down proteins to aid digestion and cut down inflammation (via WebMD).
Healthline notes that while the flesh of the papaya is most often consumed, its seeds are also safe to eat and boast an impressive amount of their own nutritional benefits. Papaya seeds contain flavonoids and polyphenols, which add to papaya’s already impressive roster of antioxidants. They also contain healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and pack plenty of fiber as well. It’s important that the seeds of the papaya be eaten in moderation though, as consuming too many may have adverse effects. Not only do the various edible parts of the fruit have different health benefits, but they can be used to make a variety of dishes.
According to Times of India, papaya became such a staple dish in Indian cuisine because it can be eaten in a variety of preparations, sweet or savory. Plant Prosperous explains that papaya has a flavor similar to most melons or mango. It features a subtly sweet tropical flavor that also has a notably smooth mouthfeel.
Besides simply slicing up papaya and eating it by itself, the fruit can be used in a multitude of dishes like salads, salsas, and kebabs. According to Have a Plant, one of the best ways to prepare papaya is in salsa. It can easily add a bright sweetness to a spicy mix of peppers and beans. Its tropical nature also makes it pair well with habaneros for those that aren’t afraid of some spice (via Serious Eats). NDTV Food recommends using raw papaya to make singzu, which is a raw papaya salad, as well as pairing the fruit with potatoes to make vegan-friendly kebabs. Martha Stewart notes that papaya is also great when roasted with brown sugar to add a caramelized complexity. Because of papaya’s flavor profile, it can easily sub in for most melons or tropical fruits like mango and pineapple in recipes.