Nothing transports you to the tropics quicker than the taste of a ripe papaya. But its sweet, buttery flesh provides more than just a virtual vacation: It also carries powerful nutrition.
The fruit, which has origins in warm regions of North and South America, is an excellent source of beta-carotene, folate, potassium, and magnesium. And that's only part of its appeal. "A diet rich in natural antioxidants is a real plus for disease prevention, and papaya has plenty of them," says Kathie Swift, a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Lenox, Massachusetts. "Its vitamin C and beta-carotene act as cellular bodyguards, soaking up harmful molecules created from exposure to substances such as secondhand smoke and pollution."
Yet despite the papaya's myriad health benefits and year-round availability, few folks reach regularly for the fruit. And when they do, it's simply sliced or scooped, like melon. Delicious, yes, but papayas can play a more prominent role on the table -- spotlighted in a salsa or starring in a roasted dessert. (And don't overlook the papaya's seeds: Their peppery flavor makes them perfect sprinkled raw over salads or crushed into dressings.)
There are more than 40 species of papayas, but the one you're likely to find in your local supermarket is the pear-shaped variety known as 'Solo.' This yellow-orange-fleshed fruit is also called the Hawaiian papaya; it's cultivated mainly in Hawaii and Florida, and weighs about a pound. Its larger cousin, the football-shaped Mexican papaya, is slightly less common; it is subtly sweet and has yellow- to red- colored flesh. When choosing either variety for our salad, smoothie, salsa, or roasted papaya, pick a fruit rich with color. (Unripe, or green, papayas are sold in Asian and specialty food stores. They have pale flesh and a very mild taste when cooked.)
As you can see, papayas are quite the chameleons. But one thing remains a constant: Their exotic flavor will always be worth a trip down the fruit aisle.