Cut open a papaya fruit and immediately the orange to pink flesh surrounding black beady seeds set the taste buds racing.
The bright orange colour is a manifestation of one of nature’s most nutritious storehouses, beta carotene.
Beta carotene is a health-promoting vitamin that is abundant in orange and yellow vegetables and fruits.
Pawpaw (papaya) this is a single stemmed tropical tree which grows up to 4-5m (12-15ft) in height. Papayas adapt to well-drained soil. The plant is shallow rooted, will not tolerate excessive wetness or standing water, and thrives best in full sun.
They are often called pawpaws, but that is a misnomer. The pawpaw is a different, smaller fruit with a different plant and leaves native to North America, though with a similar appearance. So for the tropical fruit, the correct name is papaya.
Sharon Naluwende, a nutritionist at Mulago Hospital, says papaya’s benefits are wide-ranging due to the vitamin A, B, C and E it contains, as well as other antioxidant qualities that research has proved over the years.
Papaya, alongside foods like carrots and pumpkins, is one of the best sources for beta carotene. Sharon says the body relies on this vitamin for a number of health benefits, chief of which is the improvement of vision.
According to Naluwende the consumption of papaya is helpful to the digestive system and prevents constipation as well as controlling irritable bowel syndrome.
In order to maximise the benefits, the fruit has to be eaten raw as soon as possible after being cut. Fresh papaya is full of natural sweetness that satisfies the palate and can help stave sugar cravings if replaced as a snack in place of chocolate and candy bars.
This kind of swap promotes weight-loss goals and fills one up with healthy sugars. In choosing ready fruit, gently press the outer cover for firmness that yields only slightly.
Too hard and it may not be sweet enough, too soft and it may have gone bad on the inside. Also, look out for damage on the skin, which can introduce bacteria and thus, rot into the fruit.
The papaya is dark green when still raw, but acquires yellow spots or streaks when riper. Sometimes, the dark green fruit can be plucked off the tree or bought from the market and allowed to ripen in the house.
From experience, one discovers that there are different varieties that manifest their ripeness in different ways. For instance some may still be very green on the outside when inside it is soft and ready to eat.
Joseph Bukenya who grows pawpaws says some people are eager to eat the fruit when it is not so ripe, as they prefer a crunchy bite that is not so sweet. But by far, the best taste is achieved when it is fully ripe and still firm. Papaya can keep well in a refrigerator if covered for two to three days.
Bukenya says he realised that pawpaws can grow anywhere and yet they fetch good money on the market. “There are few pawpaws during the dry season. For example, between January and March, a big pawpaw went for as much as sh5,000 in most markets around the city.
Although the fruit is grown all year round, Bukenya says its major season is from September running through to November. Sometimes it could run until December.
Papaya has many uses
Papaya can be consumed as part of a smoothie or fruit juice, either alone or in a cocktail with other fruits. After peeling off the green bitter cover, simply whizz the fruit’s flesh in a blender and add a little clean water to the desired thickness.
The papaya pulp can also be extracted by rubbing the fruit through a sieve until enough pulp has been collected. A dash of papaya adds a rich colour to a fruit cocktail, as do cubes or slices of papaya in a fruit salad.
The pulp can also be used to make papaya jam, which is delicious when spread on bread, either alone or with a peanut butter sandwich.
In some cuisine, even unripe papaya can be used to prepare a delicious sauce. Small unripe fruits are cubed, sliced or grated and cooked in a variety of ways.