Often when we think of papaya, we envision it fresh, cut and cubed and mixed into a salsa or a chunky salad with maybe avocado and a little cilantro and lime. It is also great for breakfast, sliced and served with yogurt, or used as a component of a tropical fruit salad or mixed into a smoothie. But did you know that papaya also makes a great baked side dish? Baking caramelizes the sugars that are already present in the fruit and brings forth its buttery texture and lightly sweet, slightly musky flavor, and depending on its preparation your papaya can be a succulent, sweet dish suitable for dessert or, maybe with a little ginger and cayenne, a savoury side great with baked fish or as an alternative to roasted squash.
Papayas, sometimes known as pawpaw are indigenous to the tropics, Mexico, Hawaii and much of Central America. However it has been introduced to many other countries including Thailand and much of South Asia including India, the world’s largest producer. Worldwide, papayas are the fourth most popular fruit (behind bananas, mangoes and oranges.) Basically there are two main varieties: the Mexican variety can weigh up to ten pounds, but the one most consumed and cultivated is the Hawaiian variety, usually about 7 or 8 inches and weighing about a pound, green and bitter when unripe with the flesh maturing to a deep yellow/orange when ripe. The cavity of the papaya is full of dark seeds, sort of resembling caviar. The seeds are edible and some folks espouse them as a health supplement. They are often dried and used as a black pepper substitute. Eaten raw, right out of the fruit I would say they are an acquired taste at best; bitter, astringent and gross, but to each their own.
Nutritionally speaking, papayas are overflowing with vitamin C and other vital nutrients: a 100g serving has about 45 calories and 101% of your RDA of vitamin C as well as the B vitamins folate and pantothenic acid, carotenes and antioxidants. Further, papayas contain the enzyme papain which contains anti-inflammatory properties. Papain is also commercially extracted from papayas and used as a meat tenderizer, indeed papayas have been used as meat tenderizers for centuries. The enzyme papain is also recommended to promote digestive health.
The next time you buy a papaya, why not try one –or both recipes below. Split the papaya in half and make one savory and one for dessert; they can be baked in the same dish. For the dessert papaya we used coconut sugar, it just seemed more in keeping with the theme than brown sugar for this dessert. Similarly, you could use coconut oil in the recipe instead of butter; this would make it vegan friendly and add a little more tropical flair to the dish. Coconut sugar itself has a nutty, caramel quality to it that is perfect for this dish but brown sugar would work well too. Delicious, visually stunning with a golden, almost translucent colour, baked papaya, with a soft but firm texture somewhat similar to a roasted grape is unlike anything you’ve tried before.
Baked Papaya Two Ways
1 papaya, approximately one pound
2 tablespoons coconut sugar
2 teaspoons butter (or coconut oil if you want to make it vegan)
½ vanilla pod
½ teaspoon fresh grated ginger
one lime, cut into wedges
pinch of cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 400 F. Split papaya lengthwise and seed it. Place both halves in a baking dish. For the dessert papaya, sprinkle 1 tablespoon coconut sugar over cut surface and edges. Place a teaspoon of butter in papaya. Cut the half vanilla pod lengthwise; scoop out seeds and place pod and seeds over the butter and sugar.
For the savory papaya, mix ginger and coconut sugar together and smear over cut surface of fruit. Place baking dish in oven and bake for 40 min. Baste once or twice during baking with the juices and syrup that collect in the fruit. Remove from oven. The savory papaya can be served hot, with dinner. Serve with wedges of lime and a sprinkling of cayenne. Set the sweet papaya aside and pour the syrup into a separate dish. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and the syrup poured overall.