Papaya… Mexican papaya… magnificent Mexican papaya… a rich orange reddish pink persimmon color, glistening in its juice. Cut it into cubes, it’s pulpy flesh yielding to your tongue as you squash it on the roof of your mouth, then let it slither down your throat. A contradiction of flavors, with tart lime juice drizzled over it, perhaps a light taste of salt, followed by the sweet clean taste of papaya. It’s one of my greatest pleasures – I eat it every day.
Did you know that it’s one of the healthiest fruits you can eat? It is rich in vitamin C and contains the enzyme papain which aids in digestion and can even be used as a meat tenderizer. Have you ever tried a shrimp, papaya and avocado salad? Simply to die for… What a combination of intense and amazing flavors! Did you know that you can dry out papaya seeds and use them as a healthier, better tasting pepper?
How to buy a papaya:
I go to the local “verdura” produce market two blocks down the street in the little pueblo of San Antonio where I live. I try to pick a papaya that is golden orange on the outside, with as little green as possible. I make sure that the upper part near the stem is soft, yet the body firm without bruises. Since there is nothing more disappointing than an unripe papaya, I double check with Maria who runs the tienda – “Esta madura?” (is it ripe?), I ask. I might show her two candidates and ask her to pick the ripest. “Para comer hoy?” (do I want to eat it today?), she asks. “Si, claro”, I reply. She weighs it, puts it in a plastic bag, and I pay her 12 pesos (about $1.20 for a big one) and head home.
How to prepare a papaya:
First, you need to soak the outside of the papaya for 20 minutes in water with “microdine” iodine drops to kills any latent bacteria. In Mexico, many of the crops are irrigated with unclean water which contain fecal matter, so soaking all fruits and vegetables in iodine becomes standard procedure. If you do this, you stay healthy. After it is clean, you dry it off like a baby with a hand towel, and then cut it in half. As you push the knife through the papaya, you can feel the smooth, slippery, dense texture, which is easy to cut through. You then scoop out the multitude of shiny black seeds (the riper it is, the more seeds it has) and take out a little bit of stringy stuff in the center (kinda like pumpkin pulp, but softer). To prepare a portion, you cut off a quarter of the papaya, peel off the outside skin with a knife, and cut it into three long slices which you then cube. I slide the prepared papaya cubes onto a cheap but elegant crystal plate I bought from the local grocer, squeeze fresh key limes straight from my garden over it, and then sprinkle a little salt to bring out the flavor.
How to eat papaya:
My morning ritual is to fix a cup of coffee from freshly ground Mexican beans from Chiapas, with cream and sugar. I use my favorite periwinkle blue ceramic cup with subtle stars of David on it from Starbucks. I dress in my black leggings and t-shirt all ready for yoga, and carry my plate of papaya and warm cup of coffee on a tray out to the back terrace. The covered terrace is like an outdoor living room, with terracotta tile, comfortable equipale furniture made from local pigskin, and lush vegetation – potted palms, geraniums, and jasmine crowd terrace.
I sit down in the sun and slowly begin to eat my papaya, savoring every bite. Each mouthful is a special treat, bursting with moisture and flavor as you crush the papaya cube with your tongue. The sweet, salty and tart flavors of the prepared papaya taunt every taste bud. If there is such a thing as an orgasm of the mouth, this is it. (OK, dark chocolate truffles might be up there as well) I feel the ever-present Mexican sun on my face – not too strong, not too weak, just the right amount of warmth and light to make you want to bask in it for an hour or so.
I take a sip of my rich yet bitter coffee, look out at the abundant flowers in the garden, hear the morning birds singing, and I know that all is right with the world. I am in a special place at a unique time in my life. My husband is probably at tennis, my son at his bilingual Mexican school nearby, and I am free, healthy and blessed to pursue whatever this day may bring. Who knows what will unfold? It doesn’t get any better than this… and it all starts with papaya!