If you’ve never heard of the pawpaw, you are not alone. This mysterious fruit is native to the Midwest, but defies commercial production and is rarely seen in stores. However, with increasing interest in native crops and local agriculture, you can expect to hear more and more about the pawpaw, officially named Asimina triloba, and with many fun, colloquial names including “Michigan banana” and “hillbilly mango”.
What is a pawpaw?
The flesh is custardy, sweet and slightly grainy with a tropical flavor reminiscent of mango, banana and guava. It is related to the cherimoya (aka custard-apple) and soursop fruits. Pawpaw is most often scooped out of the skin and eaten raw, but you can bake with it, blend it into ice cream or even brew it into beer. Creative chefs have used pawpaws for all sorts of delightful treats. Historically, they were cultivated by Native Americans, enjoyed by Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition and known to be served chilled for George Washington’s favorite dessert.
And pawpaws are nutritious as well. They have more protein than most fruits and are rich in iron, vitamin C, manganese and magnesium. In fact, one serving of pawpaw, about one fruit, contains over half of the daily value for iron (54%) and exceeds our daily need for manganese (124%). They also contain a moderate amount of vitamin A.
What makes them so hard to find?
So why are these tasty and intriguing fruits so hard to come by? The main reason is our industrial food system. The pawpaw season is short, from early September to late November and once ripe pawpaws only last outside of refrigeration for a few days, or about a week under refrigeration. They are also delicate and bruise easily, quickly becoming blackened and splotchy. For these reasons, they cannot be shipped far or packed in large pallets – nor will they sell on their looks alone. They are only viable and best eaten close to home or processed into pulp and frozen, which poses other challenges. The skin is bitter and inedible as are the large, hard seeds. Currently, the only commercial method for processing the pulp is painstakingly by hand. So, don’t expect to see these guys at any major grocery stores anytime soon.
Not to worry! You can still enjoy pawpaws through local means. They can be found for a few weeks in the Fall at Michigan farmer’s markets and at Argus Farm Stop. Zingerman’s Creamery has been known to make a pawpaw chip gelato, and you can even grow your own pawpaw tree with seeds from Nature and Nurture Seed Farm. If you see a pawpaw offering, give it a try and experience this uniquely Midwestern delight.
Mieko Diener, MPH, dietetic intern and graduate of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, department of nutritional science. Learn more at localdifference.org
Photo credit: Header – The Splendid Table. Plated – Mieko Diener