Pawpaws are some of those pieces of our lush green Bermuda pastoral puzzle that many people pass without giving them a second thought. That’s good for those of us who love them in every form. 

This easily grown plant has rich rewards—as a fruit and a vegetable. That it’s also the main ingredient in commercial meat tenderizer is an added bonus because we don’t have to buy it, we can just go outside and pick it. Transforming it into such savoury condiments as chutney or salsa is refreshingly simple. It’s an ingredient that stands alone or works well with others; its various distinguishable flavours speak volumes in the taste department. 

Raw green pawpaws make a delicious salad when grated and combined with fresh lime juice, peanuts, onion, Bermuda honey and rice vinegar (see recipes).  A simple fruit salad can be made with the sumptuously sweet, ripened orange version. For breakfast, simply slice the orange fruit in half, scoop out its black seeds and squeeze fresh lime juice over it. What’s more, the good stuff is edible ALL the way to the skin, not like melon, which often has a layer of inedible pulp. This with a cup of coffee or tea is one of life’s simplest pleasures. A superlative way to start the day, particularly if dining al fresco. 

A note about the name of this fruit —or vegetable. It has a lot of different names, all of which share a similar theme. Certainly, it may be referred to as papaya, but for Bermudians it’s papaw.

The pawpaw is referred to as papaw (Carica papaya) in Louisa Hutchings Smith’s Bermuda’s Oldest Inhabitant-Tales of Plant Life, an important, out-of-print horticultural text that was printed nearly 50 years ago. The book was given plenty of press kudos by The New York Times, House and Garden and Horticulture magazine reviewers at the time of printing. It contains nine plates of May Middleton’s superbly executed watercolours. One plate depicts a ripe pawpaw and its flower next to loquats, which are now in season and growing along Bermuda’s byways. In that text, there is a quote from Captain John Smith, who wrote: “Paws-Paws (sic) were brought to Bermuda from the West Indies aboard the good ship Edwin in 1616, along with Plantaines, Bananas, Sugar Canes, Sweet Potatoes, Cassava, Figgs Pynes…”

Pawpaws grown by Andrew Davidson; preserves: Felicité Davidson.

There is, however, an argument over whether or not the plant is native. This is because Henry May’s 1593 account of first-hand observations of the Island stated: “…The Pa-Pa was unpalatable to the taste of a European…” Perhaps he and his French companions missed out and ate the green version without cooking it. May’s early impressions notwithstanding, pawpaws were grown here from the earliest days of settlement.

Cultivating pawpaws and other edible plants in Bermuda during the 17th Century proved so successful that a rather large care package was sent to the starving Virginia settlers. Louisa Smith writes: “In 1621, the Governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent Sir Frances Wiatt, the Governor of Virginia,’ two great cedar chests of plants and fruits, as Figs, Pomegranates, Oranges, Lemons, Sugarcanes, Plantanes, Potatoes, Papawes, Cassado Roots, Red Pepper, the Prickell Pear, and the like…”

Smith provides an eloquent description of the plant: “It is a peculiar, usually unbranched tree, growing from ten to twenty-five feet high, with leaves at the top only, somewhat resembling a palm. The leaves are broad, often one or two feet in diameter. Flowers are a small greenish yellow, and are followed by a round yellow fruit which grow, one above the other, on the smooth stem, just below its crown of leaves…It is valued for its property of softening animal fibres, renderzing, so it is said, the toughest meat tender. Old natives always wrapped a tough old rooster or hen in papaw leaves when roasting it, declaring it would come from the oven as tender as a spring chicken…

“It was also believed that the leaves have curative properties, when applied externally in cases of rheumatism. The papain derived from this fruit is the foundation of many medicines used in digestive derangements. The trees are both male and female, and grow very quickly, needing very little cultivation…” 

Smith also offers in her book a ditty by the 17th-Century English poet Edmund Waller, who admired the plant and its capability of quick growth:

There a small grain, in a few months will be
A firm, a lofty and a spacious tree,
The Palma-Christi, and the fair paw-paw,
Now but a seed preventing nature’s law,
In half the circle of the hasty year,
Project a shade, and lovely fruits do wear.

E.A. McCallan, Director of Agriculture in Bermuda from 1920 to 1934, wrote The Bermuda Home Vegetable Garden, which was published in 1943. In it, he states that growing the pawpaw or papaya is best done by using the seed of “…large-fruited dwarf plants from the West Indies or elsewhere, but the fruit grown from this seed will be, generally, smaller than that of the parent plant in the South, and succeeding crops are likely to be progressively smaller… 

“If the seed is dry and apparently old, soak in warm water before sowing in flats filled with clean and rather sandy soil. Watch the young seedlings to check damping-off. When about 6 inches high transplant to the garden, or if of choice variety pot once or twice before setting in the ground. 

“To distinguish staminate (male) from pistillate (female) seedlings is difficult, and the methods of selection put forward are conflicting. The writer is of the opinion that the largest and most vigorous seedlings are almost invariably males. In the early flowering stage the sex can be easily distinguished; staminate flowers are on long peduncles (stalks), and pistillate are sessile (without stalks) in the axils of the leaves. One male plant to about 10 females should be grown.”

Medicinal qualities, according to old-time Bermudians, are that the milky juice from the green fruit cures ringworm and warts when applied directly to the affected area. My great aunt, the late Barbara Burland, compiled a booklet, Medicinal Plants and Old Time Remedies of Bermuda, in in conjunction with The Bermuda Historical Society. she notes a cure for worms done by saturating a sugar hump with the juice of the green fruit and consuming it on an empty stomach every morning for three days. 

Green pawpaw was also believed to lower blood pressure. Burland writes: “Place a whole green pawpaw unpeeled in a pot, cover with water and bring to boil on high heat, then continue boiling on low heat for about one hour. Drain and drink juice.” 

With the benefits of old-time remedies and its enhancement at the table, the pawpaw is an important plant to nurture, particularly since it grows with little investment on the part of the grower. 

Pawpaw Recipes
All recipes serve six.
(key to recipes: C= cup; Ib. =pound; t=teaspoon; T= tablespoon;)

PAWPAW SLAW SALAD
A light accompaniment to baked fish, this is not a traditional local method of using green pawpaw. Its origins are Asian.

Ingredients
2 fresh hot chilli peppers, minced
1 t minced garlic
2 T sugar
2 T rice vinegar
4 T fresh lime juice
3 T soy sauce
3 T canola oil
5 C raw green pawpaw, peeled, shredded, from 1 medium fruit
1 C raw carrots, shredded
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
½ C fresh mint leaves, minced
1 C fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves, minced
1 C unsalted, dry-roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Directions
Mix peppers, garlic, sugar, vinegar, lime juice, soy sauce and oil in small bowl.
Several minutes before serving, mix pawpaw, carrots, onion, mint and cilantro in large mixing bowl.
Add dressing and toss well before sprinkling peanuts over the top.
Garnish with mint sprigs.

PAWPAW MONTESPAN
An old Bermudian repast, this is a great meal for a dinner party because it may be made ahead of time. It can be made throughout the year because the green fruit is always available.

Ingredients
2 medium green pawpaws, seeded and chopped into ½/ inch chunks
6 T canola oil 2 large Bermuda onions, chopped
2 Ibs. ground beef
14 t nutmeg, freshly grated salt and pepper to taste
2 large ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced
2 C Cheddar cheese, grated 1 C bread crumbs

Directions
In large stockpot or saucepan, add water to 1 inch below steamer sieve. Bring to boil, add pawpaw and cover.
When cooked, pulp will be soft. Cool before peeling skin. Mash pulp well, or put through food mill.
Sauté onions with 4 T of canola oil in skillet over medium until gold-en. Remove and set aside.
Use same pan to brown meat, seasoning with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Drain excess juice.
To assemble, spread remaining canola oil in baking dish. Spread meat evenly in bottom. Cover with onion. Spread pawpaw evenly over it. Layer tomatoes, cheese and bread-crumbs. Bake 20 minutes at 350°, until top is golden.

PAWPAW SALSA

Ingredients

1 C ripe pawpaw, seeded, peeled, diced
1/4 C Bermuda or red onion, finely chopped
1 T fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
2 T lime juice 1 T fresh cilantro (coriander), finely minced
1 t toasted sesame oil salt to taste

Direction
Mix all ingredients.
Serve over grilled or baked fish or chicken.

FRUIT SALAD
Prepare several hours ahead of serving. This way the flavours have a chance to macerate.

Ingredients
4 C ripe pawpaw, seeded and peeled, medium dice
2 C melon, seeded and peeled, medium dice
1 T fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
2 T lime juice pinch nutmeg
2 T mint leaves, minced

Directions
Blend ingredients in nonreactive bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight or several hours before serving.
Garnish with mint sprigs.

BERMUDIAN ONION-PAWPAW CHUTNEY
This is delicious with grilled cheese sandwiches or spooned over cheese and served with crackers as an hors d’oeuvre. Chutney is a classic condiment to curries, adding a flavourful dimension.

Ingredients
1 C water
1 C vinegar
4 T fresh ginger, grated
4 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
1 T curry paste (Patak’s is good)
1 t salt
1 C sugar
1 C currants or raisins
2 lb. Bermuda or sweet white onions, chopped into 1/4 inch dice
2 lb. green pawpaws, cut into 12 inch chunks

Directions
Put water, vinegar, ginger, garlic, curry paste, salt and sugar in nonreactive (stainless steel) pot over medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; add currants, onions and pawpaws, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer, stirring regularly to blend flavours.
Cook about 40 minutes and remove from heat.
Pour chutney into sterilised jars and seal. Store in cool place. Once opened, it must be refrigerated.