Exotic delights Is it papaya or pawpaw

Prociutto or bacon are great when wrapped with papaya. Picture: SUPPLIED

Prociutto or bacon are great when wrapped with papaya. Picture: SUPPLIED

OF all the fruit and vegetable plants distributed by canoe throughout the Pacific islands in ancient times by Polynesian settlers, papaya was not one of them.

Most Fijians call the common sweet, red-flesh papaya, pawpaw, but as we are about to discover today, there is a big difference.

Despite its wide abundance throughout the islands, you may be surprised to learn that the fruit is not indigenous to our region. Like many of the exotic tropical fruits of today, the papaya has its origins in Central America, most probably closer to the hot climates of Mexico or Costa Rica according to food historians.

However the Fiji red papaya has endeared itself to Pacific Islanders and grows widely in every home and farm, and is one of our prized exports. Considered a superfruit for its wide-ranging medicinal properties, there are so many more ways to enjoy this gift from the gods apart from eating it ripened.

Across South East Asia, green papaya is enjoyed as a vegetable in stir-fries and salads, with the ripened fruit appearing in many recipes for curries as a natural sweetener.

But how did papaya arrive in the South Pacific if our Polynesian ancestors didn’t bring it here?

Long voyage from Central America

Much of the European exploration of the Pacific was inspired by two obsessions, the search for the fastest routes to the spice-rich islands of the Moluccas (modern-day Maluku in Indonesia) as well as the theory that somewhere in the South Pacific lay a vast undiscovered southern continent, possibly also rich in gold, spices, and other trade goods – Australia. European exploration of the Pacific began with the Spanish and the Portuguese who coincidentally also discovered papaya in the Americas.

Carica papaya, its scientific name, was first brought to the notice of Europeans from 1513 to 1525. The seeds were brought from the coasts beyond Panama to Darie, from where it was carried to San Domingo and to other islands in the West Indies. It was only much later, in 1626, that seeds of papaya were introduced to Europe from India. The Spaniards carried the plant from the West Indies to Manila along with its Hispaniola name, papaya, which is still used in the Philippine Islands. From there, either the Portuguese or Spaniards brought it to Eastern Malaya. It must have reached Malacca before 1583 and Goa after 1589, according to the Dutch traveller Linschoten.

The celebrated Dutch botanist, Rheed, made an illustration of the papaya on the Malabar coast not long after 1667 when he became Governor of Ceylon. From there its seed was spread amongst the numerous islands, and according to another botanist named Sturtevant, it was known throughout the islands of the Pacific by 1800. Although the Spanish never came to Fiji, it can be assumed that Polynesian, Melanesian, British and French explorers spread the seeds of this magical fruit throughout the South Pacific.

Papaya or pawpaw

Most of us call the red-fleshed fruit, pawpaw, no doubt a result of someone’s miscommunication or misidentification in days gone by, but there is a distinct varietal difference between a pawpaw and papaya.

They are technically two different types of fruit from the same family. Paw paw, or pawpaw, is actually a yellow flesh fruit that tends to be larger like a small soccer ball and for me, smells like day-old socks or a bad fart.

Flavour wise, it tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana with a vanilla, custard-like texture. Without cutting into it, pawpaw doesn’t smell like much. Once you’ve opened it up, the sulfuric scent can be likened to instant creamed corn, onions, ripened bananas or a fart! Not one of my favorite fruits of choice.

The Fiji red papaya has an orange to red flesh and usually a smaller oval or pear shaped fruit. It tastes like the flesh of a peach or a mango but with flavour all of its own. And unlike the flatulence-like smell of pawpaw, the red papaya is more akin to notes of apricot nectar and a floral perfume.

Consumers have long been confused about the difference between these fruit and the fact is that while they are the same species Carica papaya, the fruit known as papaya looks and tastes quite different to the fruit known as pawpaw.

To make things easier for consumers the agreed understanding in the Australian industry is that the red-fleshed sweeter fruit is called red papaya, while the yellow-fleshed fruit is called yellow pawpaw. To complicate things further, there’s also green papaya, which is either red papaya or yellow pawpaw picked green.

When a fruit is a vegetable

It is interesting to see how those countries that received the early papaya seeds have adapted and evolved its use in regional dishes.

Green papaya is a sought-after ingredient in Asian cuisine and is eaten as a vegetable. Thai green papaya salad, which in Thailand is known as som tam, is one of the most commonly available and popularly consumed dishes in Thailand.

Som tam originates in the northeastern part of the Thailand, which is on the border of Laos, where the same dish is a staple as well. You’ll now find green papaya salad everywhere throughout Thailand, and on just about every street corner in Bangkok. Som tam features a tangy sweet and sour dressing of palm sugar, fish sauce, chilli and lime, with peanuts, tomato and beans to compliment the crunchy texture of the raw fruit.

Across in the Phillipines, the Filipino people learned to ferment and pickle the abundant green papaya. Atchara, is a traditional Philippine fermented pickle made with unripe raw green papaya, fresh raw ginger, and other vegetables and sweet spices in a vinegar base.

As kimchi is to the Koreans, chutney to the Indians, and sauerkraut is to the Germans, so atchara is a traditional fermented dish valued in Philippine culture. The beauty of atchara is that it combines the digestive goodness of fermented foods with the super power of medicines in the papaya.

The other easy way to enjoy raw papaya is in a stir fry. Think of it as a crunchy cucumber or the tender stalk of broccoli. Just toss it in the wok with your favourite aromatics and Asian sauce and you won’t want to wait for the fruit to ripen; you’ll just eat it hard and raw.

? Lance Seeto is the executive chef at Fiji’s first island beach club, Malamala Beach Club. www.malamalabeachclub.com

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