June 28, 2020

Surprise Vegetable Grows Up to be a Tropical Fruit, Part I

Both orange and green papaya
come from the same plant

Though entirely different in taste, appearance, and texture, green papaya comes from the same plant as its well-known counterpart, (orange) papaya. The two foods are simply picked at different stages of maturity. At the end of its maturity, papaya is a tropical fruit in the culinary sense, enjoyed as a sweet snack or dessert. But earlier in life, at the green stage, it can be used as a vegetable. And a very versatile vegetable at that.

Some people find orange papaya distasteful. My son, whom I watched taste new foods from birth, liked everything we ever gave him, with two exceptions. He happily ate vegetables, spicy dishes, you name it. But he didn't like lettuce, and he absolutely refused to eat papaya. If you have had a bad experience with mature papaya, you may be happily surprised by the taste of green papaya. When raw, it has a fresh, bland crunch to it. When cooked, it tastes like whatever spices you have added to it. It has no papaya taste or aftertaste. My son can still detect the smallest amount of mature papaya in a smoothie, but he very much likes green papaya.

Papaya grows like a weed in my yard. I would go so far as to say it has naturalized there. If the seeds germinate, I can easily pull them up, so I would not call them invasive. But they do just fine without irrigation; although the plant is happier and the fruit matures more rapidly with consistent watering. They don't seem to mind the hot summers. They continue to produce fruit, even when they are missing some nutrients or hit by various diseases. And they reproduce with no effort on my part. However, an obstacle surfaces as I wait for them to ripen. As they mature, they usually develop ringspot or black spot or anthracnose or some assortment of disfiguring afflictions that robs me of usable fruit. Plus, they get truly ugly.

When I discovered that green papaya was edible, I was hoping to like it, for two reasons. First, there's no ringspot, no black spot, no anthracnose, and no fruit flies to contend with. With its smooth green skin, it always looks great. Second, whether green or mature, papaya has a load of health benefits. Between its papain enzyme and high fiber, some find that papaya helps with digestion. It also has high levels of beta-carotene and vitamins A, C, and E. I just had to figure out how to make it taste great. The good news is that there are a multitude of ways to do so.

If you want to eat green papaya raw, you need to shred it. First peel the skin and remove the seeds. This is similar to peeling and de-seeding winter squash. At my house, I then cut it into chunks, which I run through the grater attachment of my food processor. Lickety-split, the shredding is done. I make a large batch all at once, and then I have grated papaya ready in the refrigerator whenever I care to use it over the next few days. If I have carrots, I will grate a few of them as well. The two go nicely together and I only have to clean up once. Some cooks shred green papaya the traditional way, with only a sharp knife. I marvel at their skill. This method produces longer strands of papaya, which you may fancy. However without some practice and skill development, it also looks like an accident waiting to happen. 

Side salad of cranberry hibiscuskatuk,
and peanuts topped with shredded green
papaya and carrot

When I first looked at a green papaya, I had no idea what to do with it. But once I had a huge bowl of shredded green papaya in front of me, there were so many options. Thanks to Susan and Kevin, the first thing I did with the shreds was to spread a thick layer of them on top of my daily salad. Their crunch was awesome, similar to carrots. Their blandness tended to cut some of the bitterness that is many times present in leafy greens. Anything that makes salads taste less bitter is welcome at my dinner table. When I added oil or vinegar or some form of dressing to the salad, I noticed that the green papaya soaked up the liquid, along with the corresponding flavor profile. So many possibilities opened up. Sometimes I marinate the shreds just prior to making the salad. I will add some banana or mango, and the shreds sweeten up. If I throw in a fresh herb or two with some oil and vinegar, I achieve a more classic vinaigrette taste. One of my favorites is to include pickled ginger and its liquid in the marinade. Whether plain or marinated, shredded green papaya adds a bright crispness to a salad.

Shredded green papaya
Marinating green papaya brings me to the universally adored Thai Green Papaya Salad. Undoubtedly, the most popular way to eat green papaya in the United States is to go to a Thai restaurant and order Green Papaya Salad. In Thailand, I understand they make this with shrimp or salted crab and fish sauce. I make a vegan version with none of those ingredients. Here's my take. Marinate shredded green papaya in a sauce made from something sweet, something salty, something acidic/sour, and something (spicy) hot. And don't forget the garlic. As of today, Google Search knows of over 6,000,000 recipes for this well-loved salad. Be warned that such an abundance of recipes might lead to infobesity or infoxication. Wade through at your own risk. 

You can modify the Green Papaya Salad to make other types of salads. To make a Mexican variant, prepare a salad with ⅓ black beans, ⅓ corn kernels, and ⅓ shredded green papaya or a proportion that suits your fancy. Marinate with chopped cilantro, minced garlic, lime juice, chili powder, brown sugar, and olive oil. Rather than mixing or pounding the marinade, another option is to put it through the blender. To make a pasta salad, cook some vermicelli, let it cool, and then add it to your Green Papaya Salad. 

Frying up a side of green papaya, carrot, & onion
But wait; there's more. You can also cook shredded green papaya. It can be used as a potato substitute in hash browns. Caramelize the shreds to add a hint of sweetness. It's not exactly the same as potatoes, but it's quite tasty. Or add it to a stir fry. Shredded green papaya goes well with eggs. Consider a shredded green papaya, spinach, and onion omelet.

In my yard, I can generally find green papayas ready to pick year-round. Sometimes they are starting to turn orange inside. If so, the flesh will be softer and perhaps a bit sweeter. Don't worry. It will taste a bit different, but you can prepare using the same techniques. Do note that once the skin starts turning orange, it's generally beyond the green papaya stage. 

Learning to cook with green papaya presents an easy opportunity to make an environmentally sustainable food choice. They are easy to grow. The plant needs relatively small amounts of water and nutrients and has naturalized in warmer parts of the United States. I would guess the only reason people aren't banging down the door for green papaya is habit. Most of us find it unfamiliar and don't know what to do with it. In the spirit of culinary adventure and environmentally responsible food choices, it's time to get curious and creative with green papaya.

Stay tuned for Part II (yes there is that much more that you can do with papaya)

For my friends in colder regions: You may be able to find green papaya at an Asian market, if it is too cold to grow it where you live. Although I have just spent the entire page touting the versatility of this vegetable, there are alternatives to shredded green papaya. Substitute any combination of grated carrots, thinly sliced cabbage, and/or green apple. And no, they are not quite the same. I would particularly like to highlight the utility of cabbage. It has a long growing period, is easy to grow, easy to slice, super healthy, crunchy, versatile, and stores well in the refrigerator. It can also be found in a lovely purple color.

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