J.R. Tolkien

"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R. Tolkien

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pawpaw - Kentucky's Forgotten Tropical Fruit

Since hearing about the pawpaw fruit on NPR three years ago, I've been a woman obsessed with finding this fruit in Louisville.  The largest edible fruit native to America, pawpaw flavor resembles a mix between mango, pineapple and banana.  I'm a lover of tropical and exotic fruit and was immediately intrigue.

I did extensive research into its history, habitat, taste, nutritional values and anything I can find.  It's a problem I have, I take my food way too seriously. I found that they grow naturally in this region, so got into foraging briefly in hope of finding the fruits and trees.  My adventure brought me no pawpaws, only a lot of jokes from my husband and friends.  I heard that they ripe around August to October, so I took trips to local farmer's markets to find this mystery fruit.  I had no luck.  I asked an older co-worker about the fruit since it was historically enjoyed by many people in the region.  She only gave me a song about pawpaw, "Where, oh where, oh where is Susie? | Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch....".  I was tempted to take a trip to Kentucky State University after hearing about its pawpaw farm and reputation as the only full time pawpaw research facility in the world.  I never made it there, I didn't think an Asian woman lurking in the orchards would be welcomed.

It's so hard to find because the fruit never took off commercially.  It has a short shelf life (2-3 days) and doesn't travel well because it bruises easily.  Not the prettiest fruit, it has no appeal to the casual buyers.  Historically enjoyed by Native Americans and early settlers (Thomas Jefferson and George Washington among the most famous), pawpaws slowly became a thing of the past as people drifted away from their agriculture roots.

This weekend, while on the Shelby Good Neighbors Farm Tour with my husband, I saw a bright neon sign in the back corner of the Shelby County Farmer's Market, blinking two beautiful magical words "Paw Paw".  After three years, I finally got my hands on the forgotten North American tropical fruit.  I found a kindred spirit in the elderly farmer, who enthusiastically shared with me the pawpaw's quirky traits, its cancer fighting potential, super fruit like nutritional values (high in protein, calcium, potassium, etc.) and its future. My obsession is renewed.  

Shelby County Farmer's Market
I tasted its yellow custard like flesh for the first time and found myself mystified once more. It has a mild sweet flavor that brings vague reminder of several tropical fruits from childhood that I can't quiet place.  A little bit of custard apple (mang cau ta, na), soursop (mang cau xiem), and annona (binh bat) all blended into a fruit that's uniquely its own.  Several friends tasted it and agreed that it does have the mango, pineapple and banana taste. My pawpaw search finally came to a satisfying end.

Intrigue? You can find your own pawpaws to taste by heading to the Shelby County Farmer's Market (1513 Midland Trail, Shelbyville, KY).  It's open from 8 a.m. - 12 p.m. on Saturdays.  Look for the gentleman with the bubble wands at the very end of the market, he has plenty to sell.  They're in season from August to October and are going for $2/lb.  They're ready to eat when soft and fragrance.  If you can't find it there, maybe we can give that foraging thing another go?

*Kentucky State University is doing some interesting research with pawpaws and has the best information.