Papa Loved Papaya: A Tasty Salad That Brought Back Memories

As I was making papaya salad for a party we had on Friday night, my friend Victoria began to sing a song I hadn’t heard since I was 8. My father loved big band music and crooners and Perry Como was one of his favorites. When he played his 78 rpm record of Perry Como singing Papaya Mama, my sister and I jumped around and tried to dance like Carmen Miranda. She was the Brazilian samba singer who wore hats piled high with fruit and was the inspiration for Chiquita Banana’s logo. I didn’t think of papaya as something to eat until many years later.

The first time I tasted papaya, a friend had whirled it in a blender with milk and ice. The drink was a lovely pale, peachy-orange color and tasted terrible. I next tasted it a few years later with pineapple, mango and banana as part of a tropical fruit salad on a holiday in Puerto Rico and I didn’t mind it. It had a nice texture and I enjoyed it topped with a bit of lime juice.

Papaya, a plant native to Mexico, is cultivated in most tropical and subtropical countries around the world. It grows on a tree-like plant that looks a bit like a small umbrella of leaves atop a very long stem. There are two types of papayas, Mexican and Hawaiian. Hawaiian papayas are small, usually weighing about a pound. Mexican papayas are much larger and may weigh as much as 10 pounds. I prefer the slightly less intense flavor of the Mexican papaya. The edible seeds from the hollow center of a ripe papaya have a spicy, pepper flavor and are used in salad dressings or salsas.

Packed with vitamins, minerals and natural fiber, papaya delivers a nutritional punch. Indigenous Americans have used papaya, rich in an enzyme called papain, to tenderize tough meat for thousands of years. Rubbing papaya peel on skin rashes, insect bites, jellyfish stings and burns is a natural remedy. Papaya extract is sold in tablet form as a remedy for digestive problems.

Although there are lots of good reasons to eat papaya, the best is that it is delicious, particularly when featured in an Indian-inspired vegetarian dinner salad. Here’s how I made it:

Papaya Salad
With Baked Brown Rice

2 1/2 cups boiling water

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 1/2 cups short grain brown rice

1 medium papaya, cut in 1 inch chunks

1 medium red onion, cut in 1/4 inch dice

1 large red bell pepper, cut in 1 inch squares

1 jalapeno, seeded and finely minced

1/2 cup walnuts

1/2 cup raisins

leaves from one bunch fresh cilantro

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 clove garlic, minced

3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar

4 Tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup apricot jam

I preheated the oven to 375 degrees, combined the water, butter and kosher salt in an oven-proof casserole. When the water came to a boil, I stirred in the rice, covered the dish tightly with aluminum foil and baked it for one hour. I uncovered the rice, fluffed it with a fork and set it aside to cool.

As Victoria hummed Papaya Mama, I peeled and de-seeded the papaya, cut it into chunks and put it into a large salad bowl. After cutting the onion into quarter-inch dice, I put it into a small bowl, added a teaspoon of salt and covered it with cold water to eliminate the raw onion tang. I added the red pepper, jalapeno pepper, walnuts, raisins, cilantro, the rinsed and drained onion and the cooled rice.

For the dressing, I blended together cumin, coriander, garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil and half a cup of apricot jam. I stirred the dressing into the rice and papaya mixture.

I baked the short grain brown rice well before I put the salad together so that it would be room temperature when I assembled the salad. My original recipe used mango chutney, but since I didn’t have any in the pantry, I used jam. I’ve found that either peach or apricot jam works well. You can replace the cilantro with flat leaf parsley and use scallions instead of a red onion.

Our party was a celebration of the musical collaboration of three friends combined with the singing and music making of 10 others. I wished that Perry, Carmen and Chiquita had been able to join us.

Carol Egbert lives in Quechee, where she paints and cooks. Her food blog can be found at www.caroleegbert.com.