By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
‘The humble papaya is gaining recognition in Western medicine for its anticancer powers’ – begins a file I received via email. Bla-bla-bla goes on the article, expounding the scientific mechanisms, that is, the possible ways in which the ingredients identified so far in papaya interact with the tissues of the body to produce beneficial effects on a range of medical conditions ranging from constipation to gastric ailments to cancer. Similarly, for a good number of years now and increasingly so recently, common and not so common fruits and vegetables are being re-discovered as bearers of health virtues in the form of various molecules contained within them, and scientists and doctors are busy studying the minutiae to try and explain their goodness. Red grapes – in which resveratrol has been identified as the goodie anti-oxidant that keeps the French in sounder cardiovascular health – the ubiquitous apple, grapefruit and the more exotic pomegranate, passion fruit to name but a few, and carrots, beetroots, cabbages, broccoli: in fact virtually all the range of fruits and vegetables known across cultures are being looked at with a fresh light, their properties unravelled and their qualities vaunted.
The scientific literature on them is growing, and the details of experiments and studies that establish the correlations at the molecular and even sub-molecular levels absolutely fascinating for those who have the necessary prior knowledge (biochemistry, physiology, cellular biology, medicine) to embark on and enjoy the journey. I must admit that I do get excited too when I read about these findings, as they send me down memory lane to my medical school days: learning and acquiring new knowledge was indeed a great adventure as the midnight oil burnt.
To come back to the papaya, the article also recommends some recipes:
‘Here’s how you can include papayas in your diet — a glass of papaya juice or a few pieces of papaya in a fruit salad is a great way to start your day. Another option is to cutting a papaya in half, scooping out the seeds, sprinkling some with lime juice, a few pieces of cheese, mint leaves and roasted almonds. If you want to enjoy papaya as a snack, sprinkle some fresh lime juice and have it.’
My own story with papaya begins during childhood, when we used to practically hate the stuff: the only variety available then was, let’s call it the common variety. It was to be decades later that the ‘solo’ one came on the market. The papaya of my childhood was not bought. It was either plucked from a tree or given away when we went visiting relatives in the rural areas. What all of us remember of it is the bitter aftertaste that used to linger, and hence the reason we shunned it – or furtively went to spit it out if parents insisted that we ate the fruit.
But by the time I returned from medical school and courtesy the strong Indian influence which had then enveloped me, I was a convert to papaya. And so it is that, in those days when I was posted at the SSRN Hospital and I had a cousin sister who had married in Brisée Verdière during my long absence from the country, we decided to go visit her on a Sunday afternoon. We spent a good time there and when it was time to leave she of course asked us to wait while she went to the back garden to pick some vegetables for us – the usual custom, perhaps a dying one now. We decided to follow her to the garden, and that’s when things happened: to our surprise we found several ripe papayas on the ground, and my cousin went past them just like that. So we asked, why are these papayas lying there, don’t you eat them? No, she replied, it’s for the goats!
We were flabbergasted – but recovered promptly and asked my cousin whether she would mind if we took them, to which she of course agreed, still somewhat skeptical as to whether we would really consume them. We did, actually. Afterwards we came upon a recipe, which consisted in adding raw sugar to the cubes and squeeze an orange over the lot, then keep the bowl in the fridge for one hour before eating. Anyone who hasn’t yet tried this out is strongly advised to have a go, why I have even come across some children liking this combination.
We also came across another recipe, which was called snow white papaya pudding. I do not remember the details but as far as the ‘snow’ is concerned, it was made by beating an egg white for a pretty long period of time. The egg white fluffs up into a mini-cloud which is then incorporated into the preparation, over which it is laid. The result is a delight, especially when it is lightly chilled.
At another time, when the Air India plane we were travelling in got grounded in Seychelles for two nights because of engine trouble, we were spending the second night in a guest house, run by a Seychelloise mama: middle-aged lady, rotund, very pleasant and hospitable. That night she decided to make a sautee of green papaya for us, sprinkled with fresh lime juice. We were having this for the first time, and I can recall that we found it very yummy. Subsequently we have used this recipe again, and enjoyed it.
You don’t realize how lucky you are, remarked my Consultant (Orthopaedic Surgeon), Mr Robertson one morning in the Operating Theatre in England as we were chit-chatting while waiting for the patient to be put under. I would have loved to stay in a country where I can have fresh papaya for breakfast daily, he commented, isn’t that so very nice! Indeed it is, I replied.
I do think that we are indeed very fortunate to have all these local fruits so readily available, except that papaya is not given away any more. It has a price, and perhaps that’s what has upped its value, and make people choose it as a regular item – I am talking of the solo variety, though my fruit seller the other day presented me with the ‘red feather’ variety. My standard recipe is the one with sugar and orange juice. I can vouchsafe for papaya’s curative aspect: last year when I came back from abroad with a queasy stomach, papaya and non-spiced khichri using moong dal for a few days is what settled my tummy. No medicines for me if they can be avoided.
If you are interested, do certainly read what is being discovered about fruits and vegetables: knowledge is never enough. But having read, don’t make of your life an obsession: oh I’m eating this for such and such disease, or to prevent this or that. Eat your papaya, and other fruits, more to enjoy them, less than because they are good for some disease or condition. Food is meant to be enjoyed: leave the doctors and other interested parties research and treat, we just keep on enjoying or food.
Incidentally, in the recipe from the article, leave the cheese out! Cheese in papaya? Oh my, where next, cheese?
Bon appetit with your papaya…
* Published in print edition on 30 September 2011