The Place: HLB Specialties, run by the Barros family, is named for Brazilian founder Homero Levy de Barros. The company, based in Pompano Beach, has 26 years of experience in growing and importing papayas and serving top retailers and wholesalers in North America and Canada. They recently started importing organic Formosa papayas, grown sustainably in Mexico in a secluded area with a protected microclimate where the fruits can develop undisturbed year round. They are always in season and have the longest shelf life of all papayas.
The History: Papayas are a large leafy herb resembling trees, as they grow to more than 30 feet tall. The large elongated Formosa papaya is called Tainung in Taiwan, where the seeds come from. They were introduced to Taiwan from Brazil by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Taiwan was once a Portuguese colony called Formosa, which means “beautiful” in Portuguese. So Brazilian and other growers call the papaya Formosa, the name it also goes by in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Papayas originated in southern Mexico and neighboring Central America, but they grow in subtropical regions all over the world, including Africa, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, the Caribbean, South Florida, Southern California and Hawaii.
The Fruit: Formosa papayas are one of the largest varieties, with green skin and big swaths of yellow when ripe. If you press with your thumb, it should give slightly but will still be firm. The soft orange flesh is sweet like a tropical melon with the texture of a Keitt mango. When ready to eat, peel and cut in half vertically and scoop the black seeds out of the center. The seeds are edible and add a peppery taste to salad dressings. Fill the hollow with crab or shrimp salad or cottage cheese; top cereal, French toast or pancakes with papaya slices; add to curries, smoothies, yogurt, fruit salad and leafy green salads or toss papaya cubes with feta or sprinkle slices with salt and a squeeze of lime — the salt brings out the sweetness and the lime adds acidity. Dice and mix with chopped cilantro and jalapeño to make salsa good with seafood. Add diced papaya to guacamole for a twist. Make pineapple-papaya chutney or papaya-mango sorbet. Bake a papaya pie (simmer the fruit first for about 7 minutes) with a shortbread and toasted shredded coconut crust, and top with rum-infused whipped cream.
You Didn’t Know This: Almost all cultivated papaya are hermaphrodites that self-pollinate, as the small waxy flowers contain male stamens and female ovaries. The blossoms mature into large fruits that are a type of berry related to figs. Papaya are rich in antioxidant nutrients such as carotenes, flavonoids, Vitamin C and Vitamin B (folate and pantothenic acid). Papaya are also a good source of fiber and minerals such as magnesium, potassium and copper. They contain papain, an enzyme that helps digest proteins especially when unripe (think green papaya salad).
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To Purchase: Formosa organic papayas are available at Trader Joe’s for $2.99 each, Tunie’s Natural Grocery and Vitamin Market in Coral Springs for $3.99 each and The Boys Farmers Market in Delray Beach for $2.99 each. Whole Foods sells regular Formosa Papayas at $1.69 a pound. HLB can be contacted at 954-475-8808 and hlbspecialties.com.
Linda Bladholm is a Miami-based food blogger and writer and creator of Mermaid Sea Salt and Indian Spiced Toffee, available at Cream Parlor, 8224 Biscayne Blvd.