This morning I made the time to pop off to the San Rafael farmer’s market to lay in veggie stores for the following week. I was almost ready to leave when a sign caught my eye:
“Paw paws: $4/lb”
Paw paws? WOW! I didn’t know anyone grew those anymore. I mean, it’s not like you see them at all. And certainly not in California, as I was under the impression that they were more of a Great Plains/Midwest sort of thing.
For those who’ve never heard of them before, the pawpaw is a native North American fruit. One of very few native North American fruits, actually. Being native, you’d think that you would find them all over the place. Unfortunately the pawpaw gets trumped by other fruit which are easier to ship and store. That the pawpaw is delicate is readily apparent from the moment you touch it. The skin is about as thick as that of a mango but far more delicate and pliable. The flesh beneath seems to bruise very easily, judging from the few specimens which were displayed on the table.
Naturally I had to buy one. I mean, it’s a pawpaw for goodness sakes. How often will I get the chance to try a pawpaw? Probably not often enough. Never having encountered one of these before I had no idea how I was supposed to eat it. My idea was to just pick it up and take a bite, but thankfully a less adventurous and more quizzical patron, confused as to why I would want to buy one at all (after all it’s not an apple so how good could it be?), asked the vendor what one is supposed to do with it. The answer? Peel, cut it open, eat. He said, “It’s a lot like a mango.” I found it interesting that he felt it necessary to use a tropical fruit as an analogy. Everyone knows how to manage a mango, despite the fact that they often come from thousands of miles away just to reach your kitchen. But a fruit which is native to your own country? No one knows it.
As you can see here, a pawpaw is nothing like a mango. It’s filled with these large (bean-like!) seeds, which makes it difficult to open up. Out of curiosity, I tried eating a bit of the peel alone to see whether my “pick it up and take a bite” idea would have flown. The skin is a little bit bitter but not completely unappealing. So I’d say yeah, eating it out of hand would work. In this case however, on my first paw paw outing, I chose to slice it into chunks, each chunk containing one of the seeds.
Upon tasting the paw paw it’s easy to see why they are called “prairie bananas.” The flesh is very creamy, much like a banana. The flavor is subtle and not at all what the American palate has come to expect in a fruit. There is no acid to speak of, just a pleasant light fruitiness. It also reminded me of a good white wine at times, which this flavor which crept up into your nose to lightly tickle it with hints of flowers and apricot. It’s sweet, but not overly so. There is no large hit of sugar.
From the Wikipedia page (linked above) it looks as though paw paws often get quite large. None of the specimens which I saw at the market today were longer than four inches. Perhaps that’s because California is not the climate in which they’re known to thrive. Or maybe this is just a small breed of fruit.
Overall I’d definitely say that the paw paw experiment was an outstanding success. I like ’em and will recommend them to all. If you ever find some do try to pick one up and give it a go. The more people who buy them, the more chance there is that farmers will start planting these local gems.