Last year during the drought the papaya trees in the organic farms around started dying one by one. The remaining trees had fruits that didn’t taste good, some didn’t ripen, some rotted, that’s when I woke up to the tree and fruit I had taken for granted for most of my life. We couldn’t get our hands on organic papayas for some time. It was a rude wake-up call for me that we can’t take any plant or tree for granted. This tree with its origins in Central America has become our own with almost every south Indian home sporting one.
My childhood memories are intertwined with papaya and moringa trees, the fruit of one I loved the fruit of the other I barely put up with. I remember the spot near the compound wall of our home in Kerala where there was always a papaya tree. When one died another replaced it. I could easily climb on the wall and pluck or knock down the papayas right from the time I was about eight years old. Crisp, ripening papayas used to be our snack of choice in days where shop bought snacks was neither cheap nor readily available. I would climb, pluck the papayas, peel, and chop into a plate and sit with a book, spending hours munching and reading. To do without a papaya tree was unimaginable. I had forgotten the role of papaya trees in my life during my wanderings and finally, when we moved to Coimbatore it dawned on me that I need a few papaya trees in my yard.
I had fondly thought that this would have been a preferred fruit during my mother’s childhood since it grew in plenty in Kerala. A conversation with my mother told me otherwise. She said that the preferred fruits for the children were mango, jackfruit, and guava. Of course, the raw papaya was regularly used as a vegetable. In those times of plentiful fruit trees in the homestead, papaya trees were in abundance, sprouting and growing where the seeds had fallen. Heavily laden trees with ripe fruit became the food for birds. Good times when even the birds and squirrels ate fruit in plenty, and we think that we have it going well now while running around trying to get hold of poison free fruits. Today the squirrels around our house scamper around eating a raw pomegranate, leaving empty shells of skin for us.
I love the fleshy papaya fruit that is neither too sweet nor sour. The debate at home is always about when the papaya is ready to be eaten. I like it either crisp and about to ripen or just ripe enough to have in neat slices, whereas the spouse likes it almost falling apart. Finally, we have converged upon the papaya banana smoothie that has become our preferred form of consuming papayas. It has become our favoured breakfast –easy, wholesome, and delicious. I love the crisp bite of the ripening papayas and love its texture when cooked. The fruit is rich in Vitamin C, antioxidants and potassium. However, the fruit and particularly the green papaya vegetable is not recommended during pregnancy. The raw green fruit and the latex oozing from the plant are rich in papain, which is used commercially for various purposes including for cosmetics, medicines and meat tenderising.
The papaya can be a meal in itself, breakfast or dinner can be a rich smoothie along with a banana or two to revv up the sweetness component, or the really ripe fruit offered in its skin that can be scooped up and eaten. Another delicious preparation offered by a friend is very ripe papayas mashed up with thick coconut milk poured over it. This is divine tasting, almost a dessert, needs no sweetener at all. The crisp papaya that has just turned orange or yellow makes delicious veggie sticks. Grated slightly ripe papayas could be a great addition to raitha. My friend Umesh swears by Thai curry made with raw papayas.
The South East Asian and many other cuisines use raw/green papayas extensively. Personally, I am all for using more local vegetables that grow easily and are readily available. Raw papaya is a favoured ingredient in Kerala. A favourite is Olan, made with raw papaya and cow peas. The cooked vegetable and cow peas is mixed and coconut milk is added, topped up with curry leaves and a spoon of coconut oil on top. A poriyal with raw papaya is the easiest dish to prepare and interestingly it looks exactly like a cabbage poriyal and tastes far superior. Unless plucked very raw, it has a slightly sweet taste and could be popular with kids. Papaya can also be a replacement for many gourds in the gravies as it picks up any flavour, being without a distinctive flavour of its own. Papaya fruit based desserts ranging from halwa to puddings to fruit salads are a delight. If you have a small yard or some space in front of the house it is one tree that can be planted, to feed ourselves and the birds and squirrels. It could turn out that your tree is the male one that gives only flowers, which means that you will need to plant another to try for a lady papaya tree to give you the fruits.
Using raw papaya: Most people are worried about the milk of the raw papaya that burns. I learnt that the best way to deal with the milk is to peel the skin of the papaya , cut into four or eight pieces and let it soak in water for about 5-10 minutes. Take it out, dry the pieces and then chop or garte it according to your requirement.
Written by Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty is the Co-Founder of Bio Basics, a social venture retailing organic food; and a Consultant to the Save Our Rice Campaign.
Illustrations by Medha Bhatt (A textile designer by training, an artist, nature lover and craft researcher by passion. She runs a design label called “First Forest”, a synergy of waste, art, and natural history, which creates upcycled art and craft products)
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