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Where there’s raw papaya, there’s salad, chutney and avial

The versatility of the unripe fruit is unmatched. Use it to make a wide variety of dishes 

The ‘singju’ salad (left) and raw papaya ‘avial’. (Photos: Nandita Iyer)
The ‘singju’ salad (left) and raw papaya ‘avial’. (Photos: Nandita Iyer)

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The Portuguese brought papaya to India, along with produce like tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, pineapple, cashews and guavas. The tropical climate offered perfect conditions for these to thrive. In states such as Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, papaya is harvested round the year. Ripe papaya could well be called “hospital fruit”, given that it regularly finds a place in hospital meals served to patients.

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A few years ago, when dengue was raging, patients were advised to drink papaya leaf juice to improve platelet count. A few of us in our residential complex grew papaya trees in any available space so that the leaves could be made easily available to anyone who needed them. Papayas can be harvested within 10-12 months of planting, fairly quick returns compared to other fruiting trees. They don’t take up much space and can grow in almost any part of India, except where there is frost. Dwarf varieties can be grown in a drum or grow bag. A single tree can give up to 100 fruits in one season. Given how versatile the unripe fruit is, a lot of them can be plucked when still immature to experiment with in the kitchen.

Green papayas plucked early in the fruit’s life cycle will not ripen to the sweet fruit stage even if you let them sit around. Why let them do so when there are so many dishes they can be used in? Salads, chutneys and curries are my top picks for using green papayas.

Green papaya salads are popular in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Called som tam in Thai, this salad has a mouth-watering spicy, sweet and tangy taste, with a crunch from roasted peanuts. A similar salad is popular in Manipuri cuisine, as I learnt recently from my friend Bivarani Ngangom. A vegetarian version of the singju salad is prepared using any of the available greens, lotus stem, bitter beans, banana flower, cabbage, cauliflower, rice beans and raw papaya. Perilla seed paste adds the main flavour. The salad recipe I am sharing uses a mix of fresh ingredients available easily in India year-round.

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The next best thing to make with raw papayas are chutneys. When we used to live in Mumbai, we would pick up freshly made dhoklas or fafda from our neighbourhood farsaan shop. I was obsessed with the papaiya no sambharo (raw papaya chutney) that came with the farsaan. Raw papaya, combined with ingredients like mustard seeds, green chillies and besan (gram flour), works its magic on the palate like a fresh salad complementing snacks.

In Bengali cuisine, a popular chutney that uses green papaya is rather unusually called “plastic chutney”. It gets its name from the translucent appearance of the raw papaya strips that are boiled in sugar syrup. Plastic chutney, part of special-occasion meals, is served after the main course and before dessert.

Raw papaya can be used by itself or in combination with other vegetables in curries. It can be cubed and added to dals or a mixed vegetable subzi or to make south Indian dishes like avial, koottu, or as a vegetable in sambar. Given its rather bland taste, it can take on the flavours of any curry or blend with other vegetables.

You may judge me for it but I also love grated raw papaya in breakfast dishes like upma, poha and oats. The wackiest green papaya recipe has to be “fries”, with the fruit cut into batons and deep-fried or air-fried like potato fries before being tossed in seasoning.

Bivarani’s Singju—Raw Papaya Salad
Serves 4

2 cups julienned raw papaya
1 cup shredded cabbage
Half cup fresh methi (fenugreek) leaves
2 tbsp sliced spring onion greens
Half tsp red chilli powder
2 tbsp Perilla seed paste*
2 tbsp white peas (cooked and dehydrated**)
1-2 tbsp roasted besan
2-3 tbsp crushed roasted peanuts
1 tsp salt

In a large bowl, combine the raw papaya, cabbage, methi leaves and spring onion greens. Add the remaining ingredients and combine well with your hand until the seasoning coats the salad thoroughly. Serve immediately.

Notes: *Perilla seeds, bhangjeera in Hindi, are used in pahari (hill) cooking as well as in Manipur and Meghalaya. In Manipuri cuisine, the seeds are toasted and crushed to a coarse paste without adding water and added to salads such as this papaya salad. Black sesame seeds can be toasted, crushed and used in this recipe instead of Perilla seeds, but the taste will be quite different.

**The white peas used to prepare ragda are soaked and cooked in the usual manner. The cooked peas are drained and baked in the oven or in a pan to draw out the excess moisture. These dried cooked peas are crunchy and chewy, adding texture to the salad.

Raw Papaya Avial
Serves 4

1 medium raw papaya (~700g)
1 tsp salt
Half cup grated coconut
2 green chillies
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp yogurt (optional)
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tbsp coconut oil

Peel and deseed the raw papaya. Cut it into one- to two-inch-long batons. Place it in a pan along with salt and enough water to cover it. Bring the water to a boil and simmer until the papaya is cooked, or seven-eight minutes. It can also be pressure-cooked for one whistle. Drain the excess water. Use it to grind the coconut, chillies, cumin seeds and yogurt to a smooth paste. Add this paste to the papaya and toss gently over a low flame. Garnish with curry leaves and coconut oil. Serve with rice.

Note: For a thinner curry, add around half a cup of water and simmer.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods. @saffrontrail

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