Pronunciation: [puh-PI-yuh; puh-PAH-yuh]
Like the papaw, the papaya is native to the Americas (and in some regions, it's also called pawpaw). But with those two comparisons the similarities end. The papaya tree is a horticultural wonder, growing from seed to a 20-foot, fruit-bearing tree in fewer than 18 months. Papayas are cultivated in semitropical zones around the world and can range in size from one to 20 pounds. The papaya variety found most often in the United States is the Solo, grown in Hawaii and Florida; it's also called the Hawaiian papaya. It's large (about six inches long and one to two pounds in weight) and pear shaped; when ripe, it has a vivid golden-orange skin. The similarly colored flesh is juicy and silky smooth, with an exotic sweet-tart flavor. The rather large center cavity is packed with shiny, grayish-black seeds. Though the peppery seeds are edible (and make a delicious salad dressing), they're generally discarded. The Mexican papaya has a green skin and a salmon-red flesh. Look for richly colored papayas that give slightly to palm pressure. Slightly green papayas will ripen quickly at room temperature, especially if placed in a paper bag. Refrigerate completely ripe fruit and use as soon as possible. Ripe papaya is best eaten raw, whereas slightly green fruit can be cooked as a vegetable. Papaya juice (or nectar) is available in many supermarkets and natural food stores. The fruit contains papain, a digestive enzyme that is used chiefly in meat tenderizers. Papaya is a very good source of vitamins A and C.