Tuesday, November 2, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Papaya (mamão)

Statistically, the most-commonly eaten fruit in Brazil is the banana, with average annual consumption of 75 lbs (35 kgs). I surely wouldn't dispute that number, and the mountainous displays of bananas in every supermarket and in every street market would seem to bear that statistic out. I don't have any figures, but I would guess that the total consumption for the papaya in Brazil isn't far behind. Brazil is without a doubt the world's largest producer of that fruit, and in recent years annual production of papayas has reached a staggering 1.8 million tons. That's a lot of papaya! Papaya is a valuable export crop for Brazil, and a significant percentage of the 1.8 million tons is shipped abroad, but domestic consumption is very high indeed.

The word for papaya in Brazilian Portuguese is mamão, which literally means "large breast" or a bit more vulgarly "big tit." According to etymological dictionaries, this name was given to the fruit because of the resemblance between the shape of a papaya and a human breast. I have a feeling that the name was nostalgically applied by the early Portuguese explorers of Brazil, who were often restricted to all-male company in the early years of colonization.

The fruit itself is a New World species, and botanical paleontologists think that it probably originated in Mexico. It had spread throughout the American tropics, however, long before the arrival of Europeans. It thrives today in almost every tropical area of the world, but only there, as it is highly sensitive to frost. The tree-like plant on which it grows has both male and female individuals, and both are required for fertilization.

mamão formosa
In Brazil, there are two main varieties of papaya - the mamão formosa (beautiful papaya) and the mamão papaia ("papaya" papaya). Both are available year-round, like the other "champion fruit" of Brazil, the banana. The larger of the two, the mamão formosa is elongated and shaped like a rounded-off log. It is green when immature turning golden-red when ripe. It's flesh is a bright reddish-orange, often attaining a vermilion color. It often has a limited number of the papaya's characteristic caviar-like glossy seeds. The mamão papaia is smaller, often capable of being held in the palm of a hand, and much more pear-shaped. It's skin, when ripe, is more yellow than red, and the flesh is a yellowish-orange rather than a reddish one. It often has a much larger percentage of its interior given over to seeds than does the .

Normally the mamão formosa is much cheaper than mamão papaia, at least in my home city of Fortaleza. Compared to North America, where papaya is an exotic and high-priced fruit, all papayas are cheap in Brazil, but the mamão formosa is especially so. For most of the year it's price in the local supermarket is about R$0.80 to $R1.00/kg. That works out to approximately USD $0.50 to $0.60/kg or somewhere between 22 and 27 cents per pound. The mamão papaia is usually about 2.5 or 3 times more expensive, but at that price it's still below a dollar per pound.
mamão papaia

Eating papaya is primarily associated with breakfast in Brazil, and it's as much a part of breakfast as is coffee or bread. I rarely start the day without a large piece of papaya. It keeps well in the fridge for up to a week once it's ripe, and preparing a simple piece of the fruit, with a wedge of lime to sprinkle over, is quick and easy and can be done by the time the water is boiling for the coffee. There are some specific Brazilian recipes for the fruit, however, and the next couple of posts on Flavors of Brazil will feature the papaya. You can find an earlier papaya recipe from this blog by clicking here.

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