When Life hands you green papayas . . .

There is no fruit in the Hawaiian Islands I love more than papaya. Mangoes come a close second; but we’ve been able to find delicious mango varieties when we’ve lived in non-tropical parts of the world, never so with papayas. Never. I think you have to be close to the source to get a truly delicious papaya. We’ve been tempted and tricked by beautiful deep orange-colored papayas in markets in Europe and the US East Coast, but were always disappointed by the sweet, but vapid and watery fruit that met our spoons.

Hawaii, though, is papaya heaven. Orange flesh, red flesh — it’s all good. With a squeeze of lime, it’s perfectly papaya-sweet. And it’s jaw-droppingly cheap. Fifty-nine cents a pound, on sale; but even at .79, .99, 1.29 per pound, way way below Mainland and Continental prices. On our last trip to the Big Island, some vendors at the Hilo Market were selling 5 papayas for $2 — that’s not 5 lbs, but 5 whole papayas! (Have spoon, will travel.) And so we have papaya as often as possible, which is not every day so it’s still not often enough.

Having said this, there are other ways to enjoy papayas when the fresh ripe ones are not the best choice. Eat it green. Like bananas, papayas enjoy a different life as a green fruit. Treated more as a vegetable, the firm white or slightly pink flesh of an under-ripe papaya can be diced and added to soups or stews, as one might with squash or gourds (see Chicken Tinola), or julienned and lightly dressed with a tangy lime and fish sauce to make a refreshing salad. Growing up on Guam, my favorite pickle in the world was pickled green papaya, similar to the southeast Asian style salads, but marinated only in vinegar, boonie peppers (donne) and salt.

With a benriner, mandoline, or julienne-peeler, making green papaya salad is a snap. And don’t confine this salad to southeast Asian themed meals. A nice palate-cleanser with rich curries or stews, as well as deep-fried and grilled foods, a papaya salad brings a touch of the tropics to any meal. We’ve even used it to liven up the next day’s lunch — it becomes a punchy condiment for a meatloaf sandwich, or a last minute pasta salad with the addition of chicken and somen or soba noodles.

Note: Green papayas are light in weight for their size — their seeds are not developed and their flesh, while moist, is not heavy and juicy like their fully-ripened brethren.

(adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Alford & Duguid)

1lb. green papaya (approximate weight), peeled and julienned

Toss with 2 tsp. sea salt and leave for 30 minutes. Rinse well, and drain.

1 large garlic clove
1 TBL. chopped dry-roast peanuts
1 TBL. dried shrimp, chopped
1-2 fresh red chilies
1 tsp. raw sugar (or 1/2 tsp. white sugar)
1/2 tsp. sea salt

Place ingredients in a mortar, and pound together to make a wet paste. (If you want the salad to be less spicy, don’t add the whole pepper(s) to the mortar. Simply slice the bottom half of the pepper, avoiding the seeds, and add that to the paste mixture, or add the slices to the dressing below. But don’t leave the peppers out completely or the balance will be “off.”)

Juice of 3 limes (to make about 1/3 cup)
2-3 TBL. fish sauce (Thai fish sauces tend to be saltier and fishier than Vietnamese or Filipino fish sauces, so how much you use depends on the brand and personal taste)
Cilantro or mint, minced (optional)

In a large bowl that can accommodate all the julienned papaya, combine lime juice and fish sauce, then add paste. Stir well, then taste. It should hint at all the primal flavors of the tropics — salty, sweet, hot and sour. When the balance is to your liking, add papaya and cilantro. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.