Ask Peter: Green papaya
I am being driven crazy by green papayas. I thought they were a special type (I visited a herb/tropical fruit farm in Queensland that grew them) but so many recipes say unripe papaya that it makes me wonder if that’s all they are — unripe yellow ones. Simone
The first papaya I remember eating isn’t a great foodie memory, I must say. I must have been about 12 or so and our family were in Rotorua on holiday. The pervasive sulphurous aroma was a bit of a shock to me as a young fella and it made me feel like I was in an alternative universe where things just didn’t seem quite right.
Dad, being the adventurous soul he is, saw a hugely expensive strange thing at the shop which we were told was a fruit, and he bought it. Back at the motel he cut it open and we were amazed at all the round white seeds that looked a little furry, and the pale green colour of the flesh. It was that alternative universe again.
Dad cut wedges, as if it were a watermelon, and we bit into it. It was terrible — but weirdly what I was expecting. I guess most of it hit the bin. It’s a shame the shop assistant didn’t tell us to ripen it near the window —but then again it’s good to know green papaya were being sold in New Zealand way back in the 1970s.
Papayas and pawpaws are the same thing, and a green papaya (ideally the elongated Thai/Malaysian variety for better crunch) is simply an unripe papaya, picked from the tree before they show any signs of softening or changing hue. The first papayas grew in Central America and northern South America but, like so many plants, they are now grown around the world in semi- and sub-tropical regions.
I’ve seen papaya plants happily growing in New Zealand, but I haven’t seen any fruit ripen to that lovely burnt orange that shows they’re ready to eat. (Apologies to any readers who have done this successfully.) My sister Tracey, who lives near Byron Bay in Australia, has beautiful papaya plants producing the most luscious fruit.
I’ve used the more rounded papaya (from the Pacific) successfully in green mango dishes such as som tam in my New Zealand restaurants and though they’re pretty good, they seem to be missing something compared to the longer varieties. But the difference isn’t enough to warrant not using them.
Green papayas can also be used in curries and pickles, stir fries and salads. Peel them and cut in half lengthways, then remove the seeds. A green papaya is a little chewy, rather than crunchy (like an apple or celeriac), so you do need to slice them really thin if eating raw.
In som tam, the most delicious Thai salad, the flesh is shredded or julienned. This way of cutting works well in a salad, and you can do this on a mandolin, a coarse grater, or splash out and buy a special tool that looks like a cross between a peeler and a mandolin that you simply run across the surface.
For a curry or chunky soup, the flesh can be diced or cut into fat batons or not-too-fat wedges as you’ll be cooking it and it will soften a little.
For pickling, cut fairly thin then pour over a mixture of 1 part white vinegar to 2 parts water, flavoured with sugar and spices to taste — make it sweet and sour. I use chopped fresh chillies, ginger and garlic, as well as star anise, cinnamon and cardamom.
Put the papaya in a clean heatproof container such as a wide-mouthed jar or Tupperware and pour the boiling liquid over it and push the papaya down into the liquid. The liquid needs to cover the fruit. Lay a piece of greaseproof paper on top (this helps stop microbes settling on the surface) and seal the container.Once it is cold, give a gentle shake and leave at room temperature away from sunlight, for 24 hours. Keep in the fridge and it will last a month or more. Once open, use within 10 days. This is delicious added to a salad of smoked chicken or fish, avocado chunks, toasted chopped nuts, halved cherry tomatoes and blanched bean sprouts. You can also add cooked and cooled vermicelli noodles. For the dressing, strain some of the pickling liquid into a bowl, whisk in some mustard, horseradish or wasabi and add 25 per cent sesame oil and 75 per cent light olive oil. Season and serve!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.