I’m just going to say it: papayas are weird. The tropical fruit grows on trees that are actually really tall herbs. Papaya trees can express one of three different sexes: female, male, or hermaphrodite. And the fruit of the tree (which, remember, is really an herb) is actually not a fruit but a berry. Confused? Good, me too.
Once you make peace with its botanical oddities, however, the papaya turns out to be downright intriguing. Also known as “pawpaws,” papayas aren’t the same as the indigenous pawpaw plant that grows in the eastern US and Canada despite sharing a nickname. That’s an entirely different fruit species that actually tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana.
But like the indigenous pawpaw, tropical fruit fans may not be as familiar with the papaya in some places. However, globally, papayas are a much bigger deal than they are in the US. They’re actually the fourth most traded tropical fruit, after bananas, mangoes, and pineapples.
Compared to more common fruits like apples, pears, bananas, and mangoes, however, papayas can be big! You may have looked at one of the 15-inch-long Mexican varieties and wondered, “Where am I going to find enough people to help me eat that?”
Well, you can find inspiration for how to eat papaya from regions where the fruit is already a favorite such as Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Caribbean islands — as well as in the US states of Florida and Hawaii.
But the “scoop” (sometimes I really amuse myself) on papaya is that you can prepare it in a number of exciting ways, including in salads, smoothies, desserts, and simply eating it with a spoon. So even though its large size might give you pause, it’s not that hard to consume an entire fruit (or two) by yourself or with a little help from family and friends.
In this article, we’ll show you the top tips for selecting and using papayas — and how to incorporate them into delicious recipes.
Why Eat Papaya?
If you ask me, it’s because they’re delicious and amazing. But if you’re looking for a nutritional reason, consider that papayas are a hydrating food that provides a number of helpful antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals that provide gut and eye health benefits, and that protects against metabolic syndrome and several cancers. What’s more, unripe papayas are the only source of papain, an enzyme that has significant digestive health benefits.
If you’re curious about the extent of papaya health benefits (as well as potential downsides and who may want to avoid them), check out our comprehensive article here.
When Is Papaya Season?
Like a lot of tropical fruits, papayas are in season year-round in many places.
If you have a green thumb and want to grow your own papaya trees (or, ahem, giant herbs), they grow and fruit best in areas where temperatures remain warm to hot (70–90°F; 21–32°C) and that have well-distributed rainfall throughout the year. These include tropical regions like parts of Mexico, where the fruit probably originated, and the lands where Portuguese and Dutch colonists planted seeds, including Africa and Southeast Asia.
In the US states of Florida, California, Texas, and Hawaii, papaya is primarily in season from May through September. But Hawaii has its own papaya varieties, which are smaller and have a slightly sweeter taste than the larger Mexican-originated varieties.
A Note About Hawaiian Papayas and GMOs
While you might gravitate to the Hawaiian papayas for their sweet taste and their convenient “single serving” size, you may think twice if you’re concerned about eating bioengineered foods. About 82% of all the Hawaiian papayas grown are bioengineered (GMO) varieties.
That might surprise you if you go by the Environmental Working Group’s ratings, which include papayas on their “Clean 15” list. But unlike many other GMO crops, Hawaiian papayas are engineered to be virus-resistant, not pest resistant. All the popular types of papaya have thick (and bitter) skins that aren’t generally eaten — meaning most pesticide residue doesn’t reach the flesh.
But pesticides aside, if you want to avoid GMO papayas for any reason, choose Kapoho or Sunrise Hawaiian papayas, or look for the larger “Mexican” papayas.
How to Pick a Papaya and Tell if it’s Ripe
Determining a papaya’s ripeness is somewhat of an art, although it’s not quite as mysterious as, say, an avocado’s.
If you want to avoid overripe papayas, look for dark spots and shriveled skin. You’ll also want to stay away from fruit with overly soft and mushy areas. Instead, the flesh should give a little, kind of like a perfectly ripe avocado.
Color is the best way to assess the ripeness of Mexican papayas, as they turn from green to yellow when they’re approaching readiness. The fruit has reached ripeness perfection when it’s 3⁄4 yellow, with a bit of green remaining on the stem end.
You can determine the ripeness of Hawaiian papayas by their skin texture. These papaya varieties have a smooth, semi-thick skin that softens slightly when ripe.
Whichever type of papaya you’re working with, once it’s ripe, don’t wait too long to eat it, because it can turn to mush and start to rot pretty quickly if you don’t seize the day.
If you’re in a hurry and need your papaya to ripen ASAP, you can speed up the process by placing it in a warm, dark place like a cupboard. Or try putting it in a paper bag with a fruit that releases ethylene gas, such as a banana or tomato. (I imagine they have very interesting conversations in those paper bags, sharing insights about humidity and pests and sunshine.)
How to Cut a Papaya
The easiest method to cut papaya is by slicing it the long way, in half, scooping out the seeds from each half, and then peeling the skin using either a paring knife or a dedicated peeler.
Be careful while peeling papaya, as once it’s peeled, it’s liable to fly out of your hand and rocket toward the sink, the floor, or even a kitchen window, depending on its trajectory and how hard you were gripping it at the time.
Once the fruit is peeled and deseeded, you can commence to cut it into whatever shape you fancy. Slices are fun when you just want to eat some papaya; smaller cubes will work for fruit salads.
Here’s a short video, complete with uplifting “You can do anything you set your mind to” music that shows you how to peel and cut papayas:
How to Store Papaya
At the risk of being too authoritative, I’m going to come out and say that the best way to store whole papayas is at room temperature on a kitchen counter. Unripe store-bought papayas can take anywhere from a day to a week to ripen. Once they’re at or near full ripeness, they can usually last a couple of days out of the fridge before they begin their journey toward becoming papaya compost. Hawaiian papayas tend to be more finicky than other varieties.
If you bring home a fruit that’s already mostly yellow, and, therefore, ripe, I’d recommend eating it within two to three days. If it’s past its prime, and starting to get soft or mushy in spots, you may want to bump “eat papaya” near the top of your to-do list (right after “peel papaya” and “remove seeds from papaya”).
You can prolong a papaya’s shelf life by storing it in the refrigerator or freezer. A whole papaya can live happily in the fridge for up to a week (I assume it’s happy; because the thought of a bored, frustrated, resentful tropical fruit muttering complaints in earshot of tofu and greens is not something I want to think about), and papaya cubes or slices can last a couple of days in the refrigerator, in an airtight container.
If you have a papaya and think to yourself, “I’m not ready to eat this now, but I bet I’ll be jonesing for it in a couple of months,” then it’s time to freeze it. Note that just-ripe papaya can last for three months in the freezer; very ripe papaya will not keep as long.
Before freezing, you’ll need to peel and deseed your papaya, cut it into the desired shapes, and then it’s best to flash freeze the pieces on a tray covered with parchment paper. Once the pieces are frozen, you can transfer the papaya to bags (I like reusable silicone bags best, although plastic works) or airtight glass containers. (If you just chop and freeze papaya pieces in bags or glass, the pieces will stick together and turn into one large papaya ice cube.)
How to Eat a Papaya
So far, we’ve looked only at papaya as a fruit. But in some parts of the world, the fruit is eaten green and unripe as a vegetable. Raw at this stage, it’s got a crisp, watery consistency like cucumber or jicama. Cooked, it resembles summer squash.
Eating green papaya as a vegetable is common in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and the Philippines. For example, som tam is a popular papaya salad dish eaten throughout Thailand.
But once papaya flesh turns orange, it becomes sweet and almost melony, like a juicy ripe cantaloupe. The folks at Specialty Produce want me to remind you that the Hawaiian papaya is mild and sweet, its fruity taste accompanied by “delicate notes of peaches and melon.”
There are many delicious and simple ways to use ripe, raw papaya fruit, including straight away, perhaps with a squeeze of lemon or lime drizzled on top. You can also enjoy papaya juiced, in smoothies and smoothie bowls, as a bowl for a fruit salad, smoothie bowl, or acai bowl, blended into sauces and dressings, and in salsas and salads.
If you’re feeling adventurous, and have some time on your hands, you might try pickling papaya (“Pickled Papayas” might be what a globally curious Peter Piper picks) or turning it into jam. Here’s a recipe for pickled green papaya that’s admittedly quite high in sugar, just to give you an idea.
You can also dehydrate papaya into dried fruit, which both removes water and increases the concentration of sugar.
And papaya seeds are edible, too. When ground, they have a sharp flavor similar to black pepper. In fact, there’s a robust illegal trade in papaya seeds masquerading as the most expensive black pepper. This fraud is widespread enough that researchers from Brazil and Peru have developed tests to assess the purity of ground black pepper. One of these, hyperspectral imaging, sounds like something the Ghostbusters would use. (“Who you gonna call? Pepper Quality Control!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, though.)
Depending on where you are in the world and your familiarity with this warm-weather fruit, papaya may be a love-it or hate-it type of experience for you. But even if you’ve never found a way that you enjoyed papaya, it could be that you just didn’t have the right recipe. Because papaya is more versatile than you probably ever imagined. Used in both sweet and savory dishes, papaya is a marvelous fruit that is truly one of a kind!
Papaya lends a mellow melon-like flavor and soft silky texture to these muffins, making them moist yet hearty enough to power you through your morning. A nutrient-rich blend of quinoa, oats, and almonds makes up the protein-packed foundation for these muffins, with the sweet addition of papaya and carrots rounding out their antioxidant power. Topped with a sprinkle of shredded coconut, these muffins are energizing, nourishing, and a tasty way to start the day!
Sweet papaya adds a delightful and colorful twist to an otherwise sour and zingy flavor experience. Although it’s not the only ingredient in this citrusy ceviche, papaya stands out for a couple of reasons. Thanks to its soft and fleshy texture, papaya adds an element of creaminess to the tender and crunchy veggies that creates a harmonious mouthfeel in every bite. Papaya also has a somewhat exotic flavor that is just sweet enough to enhance the tastes of sour and salty in ceviche. When combined with ripe mango, red onion, fresh jalapeños, and sweet tomatoes, this Citrusy Papaya Cauliflower Ceviche is a rainbow of flavor and nutrition!
Unlike ripe, orange flesh papaya, unripe green papaya has a neutral flavor and heartier texture, which makes it a great alternative to sweet papayas if you aren’t a fan. Vegan Som Tam is our version of the very popular Thai papaya salad. And it’s bursting with a robust sweet, savory, sour, and spicy flavor profile. Enjoy this many-textured, fruit-based salad any night of the week!
This zesty sauce has just the right amount of heat to complement the mellow flavor of papaya and the pungent notes of garlic and ginger. As the ingredients simmer together, the flavor of papaya intensifies to create a sweet, savory, and saucy delight. If you are a papaya fanatic, Caribbean Heat Papaya Sauce is a must-try! Pour it on tacos, burritos, and even pizza to instantly spice up your meals.
Creamy Turmeric Papaya Pineapple Popsicles are the perfect treat to beat the summer heat! Refreshing, creamy, and full of tropical flavor, papaya and pineapple are a match made in heaven. Bursting with natural sweetness and plenty of vitamin C, these wholesome popsicles are a wonderful way to enjoy papayas with all those you love.
Enjoy Papaya However You Choose!
Papaya is a delicious tropical fruit (well, technically a gigantic herb) that can be eaten like a fruit or vegetable, depending on its ripeness. Now that you can tell when a papaya is ripe, as well as how to store them and prepare them for eating, feel free to try out a bunch of ways to enjoy papayas (including their seeds!). And remember, you don’t need a recipe to enjoy papaya — it’s an amazingly delicious fruit all on its own.
Tell us in the comments:
Are you a papaya fan? If so, do you remember the first time you tasted one?
Have you eaten green papaya, either raw, cooked, or pickled? What did you think?
How will you enjoy your next papaya? Plain, or in a recipe?
Featured Image: iStock.com/Coppy