The papaya (from Caribbean indian language via Spanish) is native to the jungles of the Mexico-Guatemala border, and was first cultivated in Mexico several centuries before the emergence of the Mesoamerican classic cultures. Maya indians used to cook meat wrapped in papaya leaves over charcoal, the leaves have a tenderizing effect on the meat due to the enzyme papain, which has the ability to break protein molecules. Throughout Latin America Papaya is sold in 3 stages of ripeness, green (verde), semi-ripe (pintona) and ripe (madura), each has different applications, green is used for its firmness and high content of papain, semi-ripe for its firmness and color, and ripe for its sweetness. Green papaya usually has a dark green skin, semi-ripe papaya's skin will go from pale green to pale yellow often in streaks and ripe papaya's skin will be all yellow.

A simple kitchen experiment to observe the papain enzyme at work is to liquefy the skin of a green or semi-ripe papaya in a little water and strain the liquid; place in this liquid a piece of the toughest cut of meat that you can find and a piece of cheese, after an hour the cheese will be practically dissolved and the meat will have the texture of liver. After a meal full of proteins, like a BBQ, there is nothing better for your digestion that eating a thick slice of semi-ripe papaya, your stomach will feel light within an hour. Throughout Latin America papaya is usually eaten fresh in thick slices or cubes sometimes sprayed with lime juice. Shakes (batidos) of papaya are also popular.

Papayas trees are very easy to grow from seeds, let the seeds dry over a piece of paper then plant them in a pot with good soil, they will all sprout and once they are about 12 cm (5 in) pick the ones that look stronger for planting in good soil, they will produce papayas in 6-9 months and keep producing for at least 2 years. Papaya seeds can be washed and let to dry thoroughly to be used as a substitute of black pepper, after grinding they have a spicy flavor. There are many commercial species of papaya with different shapes (round to elongated) and sizes (fist size to water melon size) but in general they can be classified by the color of the flesh, pink or yellow, the latter being considered the tastiest and sweetest.

Medical research in animals has confirmed the contraceptive and abortion causing capability of green papaya consumed regularly in large amounts. Enslaved women in the West Indies were noted for consuming papaya to prevent pregnancies, thus preventing their children from being born into slavery. Papaya was the first fruit tree to have its genome deciphered.

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Carica papaya


LOCAL NAMES: Papaya (spanish), Lechosa (Venezuela), Mamão (Brazil)

PRODUCTS: Papain powder as a tenderizer; canned papaya in syrup; papaya candy brittle, called Piñonate in Margarita island, Venezuela

NUTRIENTS:  Papaya is very low in Saturated Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium. It is also a good source of Dietary Fiber and Potassium, and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Folate. Papaya contains large quantities of lycopene, which has been shown to have an antiproliferative effect on in vitro liver cancer cells. For further nutrition information follow this link: Papaya nutrients
PROCESSING: For green or semi-ripe papayas you start by cutting away the skin, if the papaya is large you first cut it in half and set it on flat surface for cutting the skin away, then cut it in 4 wedges and scrape out the seeds with a spoon; you now cut in cubes or slices according to your needs; for ripe papayas the best method is to cut in half length wise, scrape the seeds out with a spoon and with a baller spoon cut balls out; an alternative is to cut 4 wedges with the skin on and the cut out the flesh with a curved knife by going around the edges. Ripe papayas are very delicate and should not be manipulated a lot because they will become mushy. The following is a link with a video on how to cut papayas, it is the best I have seen: Processing Papayas
STORING: Papayas will keep well in cool dry place but will go from green to ripe in 10 days no matter what you do. Papayas do not freeze well because they become mushy after thawing.

PAPAYA SMOOTHIE: Very nutritious and refreshing drink, blend 3 cups of ripe papaya, 1 cup of plain yogurt, 1 cup of ice cubes, 1 table spoon each chopped ginger and honey, the juice of 1 lime; blend well and serve with a sprig of mint for decorating.

PAPAYA AND AVOCADO SALAD: 3 cups of sliced semi-ripe papaya, 1 small avocado cut in slices, the seeded wedges of 1 orange or mandarin, 1 small red onion thinly sliced, serve over a bed of romain lettuce or fresh spinach leaves (my favorite), spray with any sweet dressing such as Honey-Mustard, Russian or Thousand Islands.

PAPAYA SHRIMP APPETIZER: cook 0.5 Kg (1 Lb) of shelled deveined shrimp in boiling salt water for no more than 5 minutes, strain and chill; cut enough 1 inch cubes of semi-ripe papaya for all the shrimp; with toothpicks pierce 1 cube of papaya and 1 shrimp; prepare a dipping sauce with 1 cup of mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of ketchup, 1 tablespoon of sugar, the juice of 1 lime and a few drops of hot sauce, mix well. You eat after dipping the shrimp in the sauce. The combination of sauce, shrimp and papaya is delicious.

PAPAYA IN SYRUP: Very typical dessert around Christmas time throughout Latin America. You will need 1 Kg (2 Lb) of sugar for every Kg of green papaya. The sugar can either be white or dark (my favorite), with white sugar the papaya will develop a golden color that is prettier although with dark sugar (panela, raspadura) it will be tastier. Fort this recipe it is better to use large green papayas. You first cut away the skin ,then cut it in quarters, scrape out the seeds, and cut slices about 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick. Place the slices on a baking pan and let rest overnight, the slices will sweat out some excess liquid, if you place them out in the sun the sweating will intensify. Next day wash the slices and place them in comfortable pot with the sugar, no need to add water since the fruit will sweat lots of liquid. For extra flavor add 1 cinnamon stick broken in pieces. Cook over low heat until you have a thick syrup and the papaya slices look shiny. Let cool thoroughly before serving. Papaya in syrup is usually accompanied by some bland flavor, such as a low sugar custard, a little farmers cheese, cottage cheese or cream cheese with saltine crackers. I think it may also go well with a ball of frozen yogurt (my favorite) or vanilla ice cream.


  1. I hope my blog has been useful so far, I have written on very common fruits and vegetables; next week I will write on the more challenging ingredient of beef in Latin America. I think is time to learn something about proteins in Latin America. Regards Chef Juan

  2. I have heard that papain is good for the skin and can remove brown spots. Do you know if this is true?

  3. The enzyme papain acts on protein molecules to break them, that is the reason in tenderizes meat. It probably will act on skin cells, but it may produce an adverse reaction; if you want to try it do it on small patch of skin for no more than an hour and see the effect, if it is positive you may have discovered another beneficial use of papaya.

  4. Grandma knew best. When I was a child my grandmother would slice a large papaya and serve it after dinner. Till this day I eat papaya after heavy meals to aliviate that yucky feeling. Better than Pepto :)