Papaya, fruit or vegetable?

Is papaya a fruit or a vegetable? That’s the age-old question for Okinawans, who mostly consider it a vegetable when used before ripening, and a fruit once it’s ripe. Sounds simple enough for one of the most famous fruits, or vegetables, in Japan.

Called Papaiya in Japanese, and papaya in Okinawan dialect, it’s mostly cooked as a stir-fry, or boiled before it becomes ripe. As a specialty, it’s crispy and bitter sweet, and an Okinawan treat. Cooking papaya is unique to Okinawa, but cooks here consider it simply an ordinary way to treat it.

Papaya holds papain enzyme, an element that helps make a meat mild, and promotes assimilation of protein in the body. Papaya is also credited with promoting an analgesic action that protects individuals from high blood pressure. The fleshy fruit, or is it vegetable, is grown in the Nago, Tomigusuku and Gushikami areas. Papaya is available most of the year, but the harvest high season is summer. You’ll also find papaya growing in yards of private residences, and also in the wild.

Papaya is highly touted for mothers’ post-partum, and experts say papaya helps a mother’s milk set well. In Okinawa, the most famous method of cooking papaya is “papaya irichi” that cooks papaya and pork together with seasonings. Chefs caution newbees who cook with papaya, noting that the enzyme in papaya is enough to make some people itch after touching it. If people find themselves itching after handling a papaya, wearing cooking gloves is recommended.