Cheap Eats:
  (Chicken with Papaya)

Probably the most common way for people who live far from the tropics to encounter papaya is in the form of meat tenderizer or digestive aids. Papaya is a rich source of papain, an enzyme that acts like the human digestive enzyme pepsin. Hence, it is commonly used to make meat tender or to battle indigestion.

The next most common way it is encountered is chilled, cut in half, and sprinkled with a bit of lime juice. This is my favorite way of eating papaya. It tastes like a short vacation somewhere exotic. The flesh is a pinky, peachy, orange. It is soft and cool, sweet, with a subtle tropical taste (not a BIG flavor, just a pleasantly exotic one). The seeds, which are generally disposed of before serving, look a bit like large caviar. They are edible, and have a peppery taste that is reminiscent of watercress. They are also very good for your digestion.

Though papayas are now available anywhere with an airport and a grocery store, they are still primarily associated with the tropics, which is where they grow. They are native to the Caribbean, and the first European encounter was recorded by Columbus in his journal. He wrote that the locals were "very strong and live largely on a tree melon called ‘the fruit of the angels.’"

Though no one calls it angel fruit these days, the plant on which papayas grow is still sometimes called a melon tree. Papayas vary greatly in size, and the largest ones can be 20 inches across and weigh 15 to 25 pounds—and look very melon-like. Mostly, here in the Midwest, however, we see the comparatively dainty Florida papaya, which is about six or seven inches long. (Fortunately, the smaller ones have better flavor—though the best ones are so perishable that you'll only have them if you go where they grow.)

The papaya is one of those peculiar plants that likes to keep botanists and growers guessing. For example, most of the time, male and female flowers grow on separate plants. Only the female plants bear fruit, so growers tend to have lots of female plants and only enough male plants to keep the female plants fruiting. However, once in a while, a papaya plant appears that has both male and female flowers. Or, a plant suddenly changes sex, shifting from male to female flowers, or vice versa. No one knows why.

Also, though it is commonly called a tree, and is kind of a tree, it almost isn't. It has been called a herbaceous tree, a tall shrub, and the woody stalk of a giant plant. It's relatively tall (15 to 20 feet high) and somewhat woody, but has no branches, and only a froth of ferny greenery at the top. It bears from twelve to thirty papayas a year, which hang in a cluster immediately below the greenery. However, it only bears for three to four years, generally dying the fifth year—not a very treelike life span. (Fortunately, the plants can bear fruit within one year after planting.)

The papaya made the jump from its native Caribbean to South America by the first millennium AD, which we know because Chimu and Nazca pottery from Peru has been found that was modeled in the shape of papaya. However, it didn't spread widely until Europeans started carrying the seeds on their travels. After that, it was soon flourishing in tropical regions around the world. When seeds were introduced into Nepal in 1626, they came from well established plantations in what is now Indonesia. It is likely that the introduction of papaya into the Philippines was from these same plantations.

Among the tropical regions where it was introduced, papaya received its coolest reception in Africa. It is consumed sparingly, and rarely as a fruit. It is, rather, picked green and cooked like a vegetable (boiled or baked, it tastes like sweet squash). It was far more popular in Asia, especially in India, as well as some Pacific islands. But its greatest popularity is still "back home" in tropical America, where it is second only to the banana in importance.

As mentioned above, papayas can be picked green and used as a vegetable, though this only occurs in areas where the fruit grows, because they are not exported in that condition. In many places, the leaves of the papaya are eaten, too, boiled like spinach—which makes me think that it's likely that the original of this recipe involved papaya leaves.

The Philippines received the papaya in the 1500s, and people quickly adopted the new, easy-to-grow fruit. This refreshing, tasty chicken and papaya dish from the Philippines is simple to make. You should use a nice, ripe papaya (the skin will be almost completely yellow, and the papaya will feel slightly soft when gently pressed). If you can't find papaya, a couple of mangoes could be substituted. You can add salt and pepper to taste, but may find that it is not necessary, thanks to the garlic and ginger. Enjoy.

(Chicken with Papaya)

4 Tbs. vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1½ inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

3 lb. chicken, cut into serving pieces

1¼ cups water

1 papaya, peeled, seeded, and chopped

8 oz. spinach leaves, chopped (tough stems removed)

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Fry, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft. Add the chicken pieces and fry gently until they are browned all over. Pour in the water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the chicken is fully cooked and tender.

Stir in the papaya and spinach, and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

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