What Is a Pawpaw, and Why Is It So Magical?
The green fruit tastes tropical—like a cross between a banana and a mango—but, surprisingly, is indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic.
Ah, mid-September in Pennsylvania—apple trees are popping with ripe red and green and yellow fruit, late tomatoes are prime for picking, and pumpkins are getting close. And, farmers are also starting to harvest another crop: the pawpaw. And while its bright flavor might remind you of something tropical—it tastes like a cross between mango and banana—it’s actually indigenous to North America. The oblong, green fruit has been around for hundreds of years, growing in swaths of the Mid-Atlantic, South, and Midwest. They were cultivated by Native Americans, and, allegedly, George Washington loved eating them for dessert, chilled. So then why have so many people never heard of a pawpaw?
It’s not a huge surprise, says Nina Berryman, the farms manager for Weavers Way, Philadelphia’s largest food co-op and the only one with its own farm. She often hears people, even life-long Pennsylvanians, ask what it is.
“It’s so ironic, because it’s one of the few native fruits that we grow for food on our farm,” she says. Persimmons, kiwiberries, blackberries, and Asian pears also grow on the farm, but none are native. Apples grow in orchards all over the state, but also aren’t originally from North America—they’re native to Asia and were brought to the U.S. by European colonists.
Berryman grew up in Vermont, where the climate was too cold to grow pawpaws. She learned about them when she started working at Weavers Way over a decade ago, and the Philadelphia Orchard Project, a non-profit that supports orchard design and plant sourcing for community groups, suggested she plant some. The small, shrubby trees have long, broad leaves, purple flowers in the spring, and usually, in Pennsylvania, are ripe in September. Inside the greenish-yellow exterior, the pale yellow flesh is soft and custard-y, with fat, nickel-sized seeds.
According to the farmer, there’s a simple reason why the pawpaw isn’t as ubiquitous as the apple, one that has nothing to do with its folksy name. “It just doesn't travel well, so it doesn't fit well into our conventional, large-scale agricultural system that ships food across the country, and across the globe,” she says. Like heirloom tomatoes, the fragile fruit is picked when it’s soft and ripe, so will typically only be found in farmers’ markets.
And while they may not have found their way into mainstream supermarkets, chefs who have access to the fruit are using it in delicious ways. At Dos Urban Cantina in Chicago, James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef Jennifer Enyart uses pawpaws in desserts like her steamed pawpaw pudding cake, served with candied green mango and lychee, and pawpaw flan with caramelized baby bananas. Also in Chicago, New American restaurant Daisies adds the fruit to their Sun Is Coming cocktail—pawpaw liqueur mixed with rum, lemon honey and ginger kombucha. At Laurel, chef Nicholas Elmi’s intimate restaurant in South Philadelphia, the tasting menu features a tiny scoop of pawpaw ice cream right before the dessert course.
Elmi gets his fruit from The Field's Edge Research Farm in Lancaster. In the fall, they all come at once—within a week his kitchen is processing 300 pounds of pawpaw. (The chef says to break them down, they split the fruit in half, then push it through a sheet tray rack, which catches the giant seeds and filters the flesh to the other side.)
The purée is transformed into treats like pawpaw marshmallows and the ice cream, Philadelphia-style (ie, no eggs), with cream, milk, and sugar, and the pectin from the pawpaw acting as a thickener. “We’re always trying to push ourselves creatively, and introduce people to ingredients they may not have tried before,” says the chef. “Plus, with pawpaws, they’re local and abundant.”
For farmer Nina Berryman’s part, she prefers her pawpaws served simply. “I think the best way to eat them is to cut them open and eat them with a spoon, like an avocado.”
Though pretty popular, avocados are not, in fact, indigenous to Pennsylvania.