Updated: Feb 2, 2021
Photos by Greg Basco. © Foto Verde Tours
Costa Rica has so many amazing fruits to choose from but I'm pretty sure my favorite, at least for the moment, is the papaya. It's super interesting in terms of its biology, and it can be used in a number of different ways. A friend of mine from the US once said that papaya tastes like dirty diapers. When he said this, I learned two things about him. First, he's a liar; papaya is delicious. Second, he apparently has made some very poor eating choices in the past.
Many people think the papaya (Carica papaya) is from Hawaii but it's actually native to southern Mexico and Central America. It is now grown pretty much all over the tropics, and Hawaii is indeed a good producer of the little fruits that many consumers know from the grocery store.
There are many varieties and cultivars but the more typical, traditional papaya of Latin America is actually quite large. The ones we buy anywhere in Costa Rica are the size and roughly the shape of an American football and can weigh up to 10 pounds! The sweet and fleshy fruit is consumed fresh or is used to make juices and preserves. Green (unripe) fruits are used in local cuisine as a vegetable, and both the seeds and leaves are greatly appreciated for their use in traditional medicine, due to their properties against intestinal parasites and digestive problems and to accelerate the healing of wounds and skin problems.
Papaya fruit is very rich in A, C, B1, and B2 vitamins, and contains high levels of pectin. The pulp and skin also contain an enzyme named papain, which is used as a meat tenderizer. If you have a bottle of meat tenderizer in your cupboard at home, check out the label, and you'll find that it contains papain (and likely bromelain which comes from the pineapple). The papaya also has a mild laxative effect so don't overdo it!
Papayas are dioecious, with separate male and female plants required on each plantation. Plants produce year-round, making this delicious fruit a common component of the breakfast table in most homes and hotels throughout Costa Rica. And wherever you find a papaya grove, you're also likely to find a toucan, which the love the fruit just as much as people.
One of the most common ways you'll have papaya in Costa Rica is as a fresh juice. You'll always have the choice of whether you would like it "en agua" or "en leche." Though some fruits are great mixed with water, papaya and milk are the perfect match. How can you make it at home? Simply peel a papaya, remove all of those black seeds and then throw the fruit in the blender with a little milk and ice. Garnish with mint if you want to be fancy as I did below :-)
One of my home kitchen pandemic discoveries is that papaya makes a great salsa. My wife thought it was a crazy idea when I first tried it but she's become a convert, and it's now one of our favorite things to make for a snack.
It's easy to make as it's basically just a little twist on a classic pico de gallo or fresh Mexican-style salsa. Gather up an onion (I used a red one), a few garlic cloves, and a lime. Chop the onion and garlic and throw it in a bowl with the freshly squeezed lime juice. I like to leave that to marinate for about 15 minutes to take the raw edge off of the onion and garlic.
I then chopped up a few plum tomatoes and half of a large papaya. That went in with the lime, garlic, and onion. The next big choice is your type and level of heat. I love hot peppers and grow about 20 different varieties here at my house. I chose a couple of chile de arbol, a habañero, a rocoto, and an Ecuadorian aji amarillo. That makes things pretty spicy but adds a ton of flavor. Since you probably don't have a yard full of peppers and may not like as much heat, a beautiful fresh jalapeño from the grocery store will work just fine.
Mix in the peppers, season with a bit of salt, and then garnish with some fresh cilantro. The papaya adds a great sweet flavor to the tomato and lime tang, the salt, and the spiciness of the peppers. Serve with your favorite tortilla chips and pour yourself a cold beer too!