What fruit makes a great milkshake or smoothie, yields a delicious side dish, tenderizes meat, aids in digestion and once saved a Hollywood blockbuster movie? The right answer is the papaya, that curious yellow-orange football-shaped fruit popular in markets throughout the tropics.
The papaya’s exact origin is unknown, but most researchers consider it to be native to either southern Mexico or Costa Rica, where it probably grew in the wild as a pioneer species, colonizing gaps in the rainforest canopy where light could reach the forest floor, along with Heliconia flowers and Cecropia trees. The papaya was domesticated by Amerindians centuries before European explorers arrived to tropical America and spread quickly because of its value as both food and medicine.
Papaya fruits contain the enzyme papain, which breaks down proteins and is an ingredient in many modern meat tenderizers. The enzyme also helps break down inflamed tissue, making it the treatment of choice for Harrison Ford, whose ruptured vertebral disc resulted from long days riding elephants while shooting Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom. A papain preparation was injected directly into Ford’s back so that he could continue filming. In Costa Rica, the leaves of the papaya are sometimes used to treat skin infections and wasp stings.
The reddish-orange flesh inside the papaya has a distinctive flavor, somewhat similar to a peach mixed with an overripe melon. Papayas are ripe and ready to be eaten when the skin of the fruit is turning from yellow to orange and is soft to the touch. The fruit is often eaten raw (occasionally with a touch of lime) in fruit salads, and is also used to make milkshakes and smoothies. The green, immature fruit and even the trunk are sometimes chopped up and cooked with onions, garlic, bell pepper, cilantro and ground beef to make a delicious hash served with fresh corn tortillas.
In botanical terms, papaya “trees” actually are not woody plants but rather giant herbs. Papaya grows in warm, humid areas throughout Costa Rica, and papaya groves are great places to spot toucans and monkeys that are attracted to the sweet, juicy fruit of this useful and tasty plant.