Though papaya and paw paw come from the same species - Carica papaya - they look different and taste different. My understanding is that paw paw is a larger fruit with mild tasting yellow flesh while the papaya is smaller with more intensely flavored orange to red flesh. American pawpaw, on the other hand, (note difference in spelling), and known as "poor man's banana," is an entirely different fruit and is not related to the tropical Carica papaya. To add to the confusion there is also a green papaya which is sought after in Asian cuisine and eaten as a vegetable.
Only those living in the San Diego area, Hawaii, or the tropics are lucky enough to consider papaya a local food. That being said - unless you are a strict practicing locavore - nothing adds more luscious color and pizazz to a meal than the occasional foray into the world of tropical fruits. When I deviate from what I call my "locavore tendency" - which is essentially eating foods that are grown within a 100 mile radius of where I live - I make certain I do so with something that is as delectable as the fresh papaya Carrisa and I enjoyed together over spring break.
The papaya originated on geological limestone shelves in an area of eastern Central America where they still grow wild today. When Christopher Columbus first encountered the papaya he is reputed to have called it the "fruit of the angels." It was Spanish and Portuguese sailors who began to carry papaya to other tropical regions and settlements around the world.
The papaya tree can grow as large as 30 feet tall and is an amazingly productive hearty plant. In an ideal tropical location a healthy papaya can grow from a seed to a fruiting, seed-bearing plant in 9 months.
Papayas are a splendid fruit. Spherical or pear-shaped - the fruit can grow as large as 20 inches long. The flesh has an appealing orangey-pink hue with a cluster of black seeds in the center, which are, incidentally, edible.
The flavor of papaya is sweet with an intriguing musky undertone. Because papaya lacks acid - a squirt of lemon or lime juice perks up the flavor.
Unripe to three-quarters ripe papayas are rich in a unique protein digesting enzyme called papain. Papain is present in the milky juice of the unripe fruit. Very little of this enzyme is found in the fully ripened fruit.
The black peppery flavored seeds can be eaten and are reputed to have an anti-parasitic effect. They have a sulfur-rich taste reminiscent of arugula or watercress and can be used as a substitute for capers or blended into a salad dressing to add a spike of flavor.
How To Eat Papayas
I tasted my first papaya while on the island of Kauai. I ordered papaya for breakfast one morning and it was served with a scoop of cottage cheese, a sprinkling of granola and a squirt of fresh lime juice. It was love at first bite.
Papaya can be prepared in a variety of exotic ways, but when it comes to something this delicious, I like to keep it simple. Papaya tastes wonderful eaten just as it is. Papaya can be cut up and blended into fruit smoothies. Sliced papaya makes a striking edible garnish for fish and meat dishes or salads.