Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Papayas are species of the genus Carica, a native of the American tropics that looks like a small tree but is actually a large herbaceous plant. The common papaya, C. papaya, consists of a thickened ovary wall, orange to orange-red with carotenoid pigments, and a few dark seeds in a large central cavity. It is a climacteric fruit that doesn’t store any starch. Ripening begins at the center and progresses outward, and causes a manyfold increase in carotenoid pigments and aroma molecules, as well as a marked softening. Softening causes the apparent sweetness to increase even though the actual sugar content doesn’t change (the sugars are more readily released from the softened tissue). A ripe papaya is a low-acid fruit with a delicate, flowery aroma thanks to terpenes, and a touch of cabbage-like pungency due to the surprising presence of isothiocyanates. These compounds are especially concentrated in the seeds, which can be dried and used as a mildly mustardy seasoning.