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It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon in December. I was in Chennai visiting the neighborhood where I had grown up. The temples were still there, and I could still recognize the place, but the character of the street had changed. The large playground across from our street had become a huge shopping complex, and my own home had been turned into a multi-storey housing unit. Sadly, my neighbor’s home looked dilapidated and out of place. But the few papaya trees lining the front of his house were still thriving in the hot sun. The sight of the papayas triggered memories of my home.

We used to grow our own papaya trees, along with mango, moringa and henna trees. The sweet smell of green papaya thoran (sauteed with coconut) that my grandmother loved to cook came flooding back. She would let some papayas ripen on the tree for us to eat as an evening snack with red pepper and salt. Yum!

The “fruit of the angels” as Christopher Columbus called it, the papaya is native to the tropical Americas, Mexico and Costa Rica. It is fascinating to trace the papaya trail around the world. From the Americas, the seeds were taken to the West Indies and Bermuda in the early 1500s. Then the Spaniards took the seeds to Philippines in the early 1600s. There are conflicting theories of whether it was the Spaniards or the Portuguese who brought the papaya plant to India in the 1600s. From India the seed was exported to Italy. Due to its adaptability the papaya plant grew all over the tropics from West Indies to South East Asia and Australia.

Here in the United States, the seeds were brought to Florida from the Bahamas around 1559 and grown in home gardens until the 1960s. Now it is grown commercially in Hawaii.

According to the National Horticulture Board, India is the largest producer of papaya in the world today.

Papaya is an excellent source of antioxidants, Vitamin C, A and B, flavonoids and folate. It is also a great source of potassium, magnesium and pantothenic acid. Thomas Pennington Lucas, a well known botanist and medical scientist called the papaw (papaya) “the world’s greatest healing agent.” He went on to start an hospital called Vera Papaw, in Brisbane Australia where patients were treated with nothing but papaya to cure ailments.

There are innumerable benefits of using papaya in our diet. In Chinese medicine the raw papaya is given to patients with digestive and stomach ailments, and to increase breast milk in nursing mothers. The fruit is used to cure constipation and dysentery and urinary ailments. In Hawaii, the latex is used on open wounds to heal it. The seeds are given to early stage cancer patients. Studies show that the antioxidants in papaya help reduce the oxidation of cholesterol that causes it to stick to the arteries as plaque, causing heart attacks and strokes. Being a good source of fiber, papaya reduces the buildup of cholesterol in the body. As a great source of fiber, papaya is also helpful in preventing constipation.

The latex of papaya contains two proteolytic enzymes called papain and chymopapain.

Papain is used as an antiinflammatory agent in reducing arthritis and in healing infections and reducing fluid retention during trauma and surgery. The main ingredient in toothpastes as a whitener and digestive is papain. In many countries papaya is used as an immune booster to fight against hay fever, dengue fever, flu and cold and the leaves have been used on wounds to quicken healing.

In some cases papaya is said to have caused abortions in pregnant women. Latex allergies have also been associated with papaya latex and papaya skin.

The anti-inflammatory and anti-cancerous properties are also well documented. According to the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, papain along with green tea helps reduce colon and prostate cancer. Even to this day, the papaya is used as an antidote to insect bites, used as a cleanser in cosmetics, and a natural meat tenderizer.

Praba Iyer teaches custom cooking classes around the SF Bay Area. She also blogs about cooking at

Green Papaya Thoran

2 cups green papaya (peeled, seeded
and cubed)
1 tsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp urad dal (split black gram)
2-3 shallots chopped fine
¼ cup fresh shredded coconut
2-3 green chilies chopped fine
salt to taste.

Heat oil in a skillet and add the mustard seeds. Once it splutters add the urad dhal, curry leaves and shallots Then add the coconut, green chilies and saute. Then add the raw papaya and mix. Lower the heat and let it cook for about 10 minutes or until the papaya is soft yet crunchy.

Season with salt and serve.

Papaya Hair Mask

I make this mask for my wispy, dry unhealthy hair with split ends and dandruff. It is like a natural steroid boost that makes your hair come alive.

Half a ripe papaya
1 banana
½ cup yogurt
1 tbsp of coconut oil

Blend these ingredients to a smooth paste in blender to a soft smooth paste. Apply it on the hair. Wear a cap and let it soak in for ½ an hour. Then wash it off well with water. n

Anti-Aging Face Pack

I don’t throw the papaya skin without it exfoliating my face. Just rub the inside part of the papaya skin all over your face and keep for 15 minutes before you wash it off. Here’s another recipe for a face mask.

4 cubes of ripe papaya mashed well
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp of sandalwood powder (optional)

Mash all these into a smooth paste and apply it to the face excluding the eyes. Leave it for about 20 minutes and then wash with cold water. Pat dry the glowing clean face.