Food writer Nicola Miller takes us on the papaya’s journey through time and across continents, which sees us arriving today at a very flavoursome destination
Creation myths often begin with water. Mãui’ caught the ocean floor with his fishhook and paddled away, trailing the newly-raised islands of the Hawaiian archipelago behind him. The Polynesian deity Ta’aroa emerged from a cosmic egg laid upon the primeval waters whilst the Yoruban people talk of a golden chain which allowed Obatala to climb down from the sky to create solid land from water.
It all goes back to mothers and their own intimate connection to the watery world from which their babies emerge, mewling and new. The body of a newly-born child can be up to 80 per cent water: its muscles a salty and aqueous twitching jelly, tethered to the earth by gravity but with sea anemone fingers that wave and ripple as if underwater still. We remain sea creatures at heart. As Loren Eiseley once wrote: “A human. . . is that indescribable and liquid brew which is compounded in varying proportions of salt and sun and time, and on the day we are born, we’re at high tide. After that, very quietly, the sea within us ebbs and ebbs, and as it goes. . . so do we.” There is logic to these myths. Life cannot exist without water.
Go back some 35 million years to the vast expanse of ocean that existed between what we now know as the continents of Africa and the Americas. In Africa, there already existed two species of the Caricaceae family, the distant ancestors of the neotropical papaya. At some point it is possible that seeds from these species managed to drift across the ocean, carried by the south or north equatorial currents far from their West African home, riding the waves as flotsam and jetsam or even on small ‘floating islands’ until they made land in Central America during the late Eocene, took root and germinated. Time passes and this woody herbaceous plant begins to move south; it colonises easily, taking advantage of the slowly forming isthmus between Central and South America. There is great divergence among caricaceae during the late Oligocene and it is here we see the emergence of Carica papaya – their new sister – and the form of papaya more familiar to us. She goes on to find a copacetic home in Mesoamerican tropical forests and flourishes in conditions where the forest canopy is not too thick, cultivated by people who existed before the Maya.
The Spanish arrived in the Americas and cruelly plunder its riches, sailing away with papaya seeds from plants long domesticated by Mesoamericans before making land in Panama and the Dominican Republic and later, to the Philippines via the Manila galleons. From there the plant was imported into Eastern Malaysia, either by the Spanish or Portuguese, and introduced to India via Goa around 1589. By 1800, papaya was known through SE Asia. Finally, Carica papaya returned to Africa, taken there by Portuguese colonisers where the plant is grown to this day.
It is no surprise that the papaya has become the third most cultivated tropical crop worldwide, especially in India, Mexico, Hawaii, Nigeria, Brazil and Indonesia. The combination of colonialism and a plant known to be a fast-growing nomad has been economically potent because this is a plant that thrives wherever humans practice agriculture and small-scale forest clearing: they do not grow well in dense rainforest where there exists competition for light and nutrients. Carica papaya becomes fruit-bearing within one year of planting; is short-lived, likes to breed and fruits prolifically and its fruit can be eaten ripe or cooked unripe, contains high levels of pectin making it perfect for preserving as jams and leathers, and the seeds can be dried, ground and used as a pepper-like substitute. Every part of the plant contains an enzyme – papain – which has industrial and pharmacological uses; 80 per cent of American-made beer is clarified using it and I remember using a Cosmetics To Go papaya face mask in the eighties which caused such severe dehiscing of the skin, my face resembled the bark of a eucalyptus tree. Remarkable. Mesoamericans used the leaves to tenderise meat; many cultures still do. It certainly tenderised my face.
A tweet from food writer Sejal Sukhadwala asking about classic pairings of fruit with spice and salt around the world set off a train of thought. The suggestions made my salivary glands pulsate: “Sour green mango with kicap manis, sugar and birds eye chilies. We eat wax apples and guava with sour plum powder. And salt over pineapples” tweeted May of @mayeatcookexplore_. Vidya Balachander spoke of the Sri Lankan treat of hog plums with salt and chili powder whilst others rhapsodised over green mangoes and guava with salt and chili or Sicilian oranges dipped in salt. In Britain, we have strawberries lightly dusted with black pepper. (Nigella has a recipe for a rose and black pepper pavlova with strawberries and passion fruit.)
So here is a papaya and mango seafood noodle salad, heavily influenced by the movement of papaya across the globe. You will see variations of this salad in Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Laos. The famous ceviche dishes of Chile, Ecuador and Peru share its sweet-sharp-briny qualities and the same applies to coastal Mexico where tacos are filled with fresh fish and shellfish, doused with salt, chilies and lime and topped with a papaya and mango salsa. The West African ‘after-chop’ with its mix of honey, peanuts and fresh fruit, the kyenam (fried fish) of Ghana and the southern Nigerian suya share commonalities of flavour, too, even if they don’t always include papaya (although Zoe Adjonyoh has a recipe for kyenam with shaved papaya in her book, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen).
My recipe is a melange and a journey and reflects very strongly the seafood available to me, namely Cromer crab and Stiffkey blue cockles, which are absolutely in keeping with the traditions of coastal fishing communities all over the world. Keats grave bore the inscription ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’, but as is so often the case with the food we eat, this could equally apply to the papaya, a great ocean-going fruit whose history is writ upon the waters by nature and colonial commerce and a plant that eventually returned – albeit changed by its travels as is so often the case – to its African motherland. This is its creation story.
PAPAYA AND MANGO SEAFOOD NOODLE SALAD
To make the dressing
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 red bird eye chili, seeds and ribs removed: flesh finely minced
Zest and juice of 1 large lime
¼ tsp ancho chile powder (adds a subtle background heat to balance the upfront heat of the bird eye)
3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp mirin
½ tbsp water
2 tsp fish sauce
2 ½ tsp runny honey
To make the dressing, whisk together all the ingredients in a bowl until they are combined. I use a mini food processor to chop the shallot and chili. If you can, make this in advance because the flavour really benefits if it can slowly meld.
To make and assemble the salad
300g dry weight rice vermicelli noodles
1 large green papaya, 500g, peeled and sliced into thin strips
1 large under-ripe mango peeled and sliced into thin strips
250g cooked giant prawns
1 medium dressed crab
250g cockles, well rinsed
Small handful of holy basil leaves, torn
Handful of mint leaves, torn
Handful of coriander leaves, torn
2 tbsp roasted peanuts, crushed
Place the noodles in freshly boiled water, cover and leave for five minutes or until softened. Drain and rinse in cold water, drain again and place on a large serving platter.
Crush the peanuts and set aside.
Scatter the matchsticks of papaya and mango on top of the noodles.
Now scatter the crab meat (brown and white), the cockles and the shrimp over the fruit.
Scatter the torn herbs on top; the amount and proportions you use are up to you. I tend to use fewer leaves of holy basil because I find it a bit overpowering otherwise.
Give the dressing another stir then pour it over the top of the salad and scatter over the peanuts. Eat straight away. Serves four very hungry people.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020