Tropical Fruit Facts and Legends: Papaya – The Fruit of the Angels

The papaya is native to the tropics and is believed to have been first cultivated in Mexico.  The Conquistadors who landed in the tropical Americas found and tried the papaya fruit and thereafter gave it the title “fruit of the angels” because of its heavenly taste.  The fruit (also called papaw or pawpaw) when ripe varies in color, depending on the variety, from yellow to crimson-orange; is luscious and fragrant; and believed to provide a lot of healthy benefits.  Some varieties of papaya can be as long as twenty inches but most commercially grown fruits are pear-shaped and only about seven inches in length, around half a kilo in weight.  The fruit is readily available especially in the tropics because papaya trees bear fruit in abundance all year round.

A papaya tree with ripe fruit in the Philippines (Tampakan, South Cotabato)

Ripe Papayas

The sweet , juicy flesh of ripe papayas are usually enjoyed raw without the skin or seeds.  A ripe papaya can be great supplement for meals or snacks and its exciting color and shape makes it a good component for table decorations.  Ripe papaya is regularly used as flavouring for smoothies or fruit shake and can also be dried and processed as a snack/fruit preserve.

Whole and sliced ripe papaya (solo variety)

Green Papaya

Unripe green papaya is commonly used as a vegetable mixed in curries, salads and stews.  Some popular salads in Southeast Asia use green papaya as the main ingredient.  The Thai Som tam, the Vietnamese Goi du du, the Cambodian Bok L’hong ;  and Laotian Tam mak hoong are all tasty, curiously similar green papaya salads  which may include the herb kantropasian basil, string beans, roasted peanuts, cherry tomatoes, salted preserved small crabs, smoked or dried fish, and chili peppers mixed with other spices and a savory dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and/or prahok or salted anchovies. I have learned to appreciate the importance of these dishes among the people of Indochina when I worked with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees and regularly got entertained with a tasty green papaya salad on special occasions.

Atsara: a Filipino pickled green papaya

In the Philippines, the equivalent of the green papaya salad is called Atsara which is a pickled unripe papaya usually served as an appetizer or a side dish. The main ingredients of the atsara are carrot slices, julienned ginger, bell pepper, onion, and garlic mixed in a solution of vinegar, sugar or syrup, and salt preserves.  The other Filipino dish which prominently features the papaya is the Tinola which is a chicken broth traditionally cooked with wedges of green papaya and leaves of chilli pepper flavoured with ginger, onions and fish sauce.  Green papaya fruits (and the tree’s latex) are rich in an enzyme called papain, which has an ability to break down tough meat fibers, has been used for thousands of years as meat tenderizer, and now is usually included as a component in powdered meat tenderizers.

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A papaya plantation in Southern Philippines (Tampakan, South Cotabato)

A Surprising Number of Health Benefits

The papaya is a surprisingly healthy fruit. It is high in bromelain, which makes it beneficial in ways similar to pineapple.  It is said to have digestive and heart health properties and is especially rich in Vitamin C and carotene.  It carries an unusual but very valuable element called arginine which is known to have beneficial effects on male erectile dysfunctions; carpain which is an enzyme considered to be good for the heart; and fibrin which is an essential part of the blood clotting process and is very rare in plants.  Initial findings of studies indicate that papaya may prevent diabetic heart disease because of its high fiber content which helps lower cholesterol levels.  Furthermore, it is believed that the fiber found in papaya can bind cancer-causing toxins to it thus preventing them from binding to cells in the colon. Therefore, the papaya may be an important dietary addition for those of us who have a family history of colon cancer.  Aside from its positive effects on male fertility, another promising finding is that men who ate lycopene-rich foods are less likely to develop prostate cancer and papaya is one of the high lycopene fruits which is easy to eat and is available all year round.

Ripe and green papaya provide a variety of health benefits

Dried and packaged ripe papaya (Philippines)

A Contraceptive?

On the other hand, it is believed that phytochemicals in papaya may suppress the effects of progesterone. Women in many countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have long used green papaya for contraception and abortion. In the history of the West Indies, slave women were noted for consuming papaya to prevent pregnancies and thus preventing their children from being born into slavery.   It is also speculated that the latex concentration of unripe papayas may cause uterine contractions, which may lead to a miscarriage. Medical experiments have confirmed the contraceptive and abortifacient capability of large doses of papaya on rats and monkeys. However, ripe papaya in moderate amounts has no effect on the unborn animals and does not cause miscarriage.  Papaya is likewise marketed in tablet form to remedy digestive problems. Certain elements in papaya fruit, seeds, latex, and leaves also contain  drugs that remove parasitic worms from the body but this can be dangerous when taken in high doses.

A brand of hygiene products using papaya extracts in the Philippines

External Body Uses

Both the skin and pulp of the papaya are believed to have healing and anti-aging effects on the external parts of the human body.  In papaya-growing countries, papain (the latex from the fruit of the papaya) is applied for the treatment of cuts, rashes, stings and burns.  The latex is also processed into a papain ointment and is applied to the affected area as a gel-like paste.  The healing and anti-aging effects of papain have been combined into various health and beauty products including bath soaps, shampoos and conditioners, and astringents. However, raw, unprocessed latex fluid can cause irritation and provoke allergic reaction in some people.

A pile of ripe papayas (Philippines)

Other Useful Functions

The edible seeds of the papaya has a sharp, spicy taste and is sometimes dried and ground for use as substitute for black pepper . In some parts of Asia, the young leaves of papaya are cooked as vegetable in combination with meat and coconut milk or steamed like spinach. In other parts of the world, papaya leaves are made into tea as a preventative for malaria, though there is no real scientific evidence for the effectiveness of this treatment.  The stem and bark of the papaya tree can be processed as material in rope production.

Thus its versatility in performing roles as raw food, as a major ingredient in cooked dishes, as source of medicines and therapeutic drugs, and as raw material for various other uses, in my book, makes the papaya truly deserving of its title as the fruit of the angels.

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