How to Cut and Prepare Papaya

Papaya is one of those fruits that are best eaten when they are very, very ripe. (The only exception, of course, is when you intentionally use papayas when they’re green as the Thai people do when they make the famous Thai green papaya salad, Som Tam (ส้มตำ), or when Filipinos do when they make Tinola or Tinolang Manok.)

Some people steer clear of this beautiful, versatile, and, in my opinion, one of the most delicious tropical fruits, because of its unique scent (or as some would call, “foul smell”). Although that smell does not bother me one bit, I know what they’re talking about. And I’ve found that the more ripe the papaya, the less of said smell it gives off. Besides, eating papaya when it’s very, very ripe allows you to see and taste the fruit at its best. I usually buy my papaya from Asian or Hispanic grocery stores as those are places where you’re more likely to get the kind of papaya that, in my opinion, is the most delicious. The small Hawaiian papayas that are found in mainstream grocery stores aren’t my cup of tea, to say the least. The longer, larger, meatier papayas, preferred by Southeast and South Asians and apparently Latin Americans, are, in my humble opinion, the tastiest. I always buy papayas when they’re still a little bit on the green side — the stage in which most papayas are sold in most stores anyway. This allows me to minimize the bruises on the fruit while bringing it home. Papayas bruise extremely easily. (You even so much as raise your voice with it and it’s bruised all over …) That’s why you often see them wrapped in paper or styrofoam nets at the market. Then I leave it on the kitchen counter and let it ripen, undisturbed. This takes about 4-5 days from the purchase date based on the degree of ripeness most of the papayas I’ve purchased usually are. So, buy a papaya 4-5 days before you plan to eat them. A perfectly ripe papaya takes on a dark shade of orange, becomes wrinkly, appears bruised externally even though it may not be, and sports ugly spots which may look moldy. Sometimes, though, there are actual moldy spots on the skin. This is no big deal, the mold is only skin-deep and requires nothing but peeling, which is what you’re supposed to do anyway. Basically, if your papaya still looks good, it’s probably not ripe enough. It needs to look quite hideous. The fact that papayas are best eaten when fully ripe presents a bit of a problem. The softer the fruit, the more fragile it is. Unless you have a plan in place, peeling a ripe papaya can be a real mess. But fret not as this is easier than you think. First you cut the thing in half crosswise. Then you cut each half lengthwise. Depending how big the papaya is, you can cut each quarter lengthwise into 3 or 4 spears. With the sharpest knife in your kitchen (a serrated knife works very well too), held horizontally and with the blade pointing away from you, slice off the membrane side, about 2 millimeters deep. Be careful not to squeeze the papaya pieces too hard as they are very fragile. If using a serrated knife, a see-saw motion will make the slicing easier. The key is to create beautiful, clean, and crisp edges. Then I flip each piece over and slice off the skin the same way you do the membrane side. If each spear is narrow enough, you may be able to get the skin completely off in one go. But if some of the skin is still left, it’s just a matter of picking up the spare, to use bowling jargon. At this point, your sweet-as-honey, perfectly-ripe papaya flesh is ready to serve. You can serve it in spears or cut each spear crosswise to create bite-sized pieces. If you cut each spear in half lengthwise and then crosswise, you get papaya dice or cubes. The fruit is best served and eaten unadorned, but sometimes I’ve been known to squeeze a bit of lime juice over it. Lime juice, to me, brings out the sweetness of the ripe papaya even more and perks up its flavor. It’s a Thai thing. You don’t have to do that. If desired, you can even use fresh papaya to teach your kids basic geometry as well. Like I said, this fruit is very versatile.

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