I knew a long time ago that I could cook papaya.
My grandmother used to pluck the unripe fruit from our one and only tree in the garden, to my chagrin, for I loved the ripe sweet fruit eaten with a squeeze of lime.
It, more than any other fruit, brings a taste of the tropics to the table.
But she wanted it green to cook this nonya soup called titek that is hot with pepper rather than chilli.
Then I discovered Thai green papaya salad and loved the fruit even more, especially when it is spiked with the lethal tiny red chilli that the Thais use.
It is fresh, tangy and wakes up the palate with its sweet and hot sourness.
Stir-fried green papaya and bitter gourd with prawns and black beans
• Half a medium-sized green papaya, peeled and cut into small chunks
• 1 bitter gourd, cut into roughly equal-sized chunks
• 1 tsp chopped garlic
• 1 heaped tsp of fermented black beans
• ½ tsp sugar
• 10 to 12 medium-sized prawns, peeled
• 1 tsp light soya sauce
• 2 red chillies, sliced
• 1 tbs vegetable oil
• 1/2 cup water
• Peel and cut the papaya into small chunks, the same size as the bitter gourd pieces.
• Heat vegetable oil in a hot wok.
• Saute the garlic to flavour the oil, then add the black beans, and if desired, ½ tsp of sugar.
• Add the papaya and bitter gourd pieces.
• Toss briskly and add the water to allow the fruit and vegetable to soften in the steam.
• Add prawns, then light soya sauce.
• Toss well to combine. Add the red chillies as a garnish at the end.
• Taste to adjust seasoning, if needed.
SERVES FOUR TO SIX
And when I cooked for my daughter-in-law during confinement, I learnt to make a green papaya soup with fish to help boost her milk production. It was more delicious than I expected, even if the soup was plain with only some slices of ginger in it.
Whether it worked or not, I cooked that soup regularly with one half of the fruit and used the other half for titek or the Thai salad.
But what else could I do with the other half? Could I stir-fry it as I did once with a pumpkin where I sliced off thin shavings and fried it with green chilli, fish sauce and some Thai basil?
Few people stir-fry papaya, but I thought of chunks of it, braised perhaps with bitter gourd as a foil, adding a scattering of black beans for a shot of saltiness and some hot, red chilli for a burst of spice.
I tried it, adding fresh prawns for some sweet meatiness.
It worked very well.
It is now one of the recipes in my regular repertoire, not least for its nutritional value.
You see, the papaya is also one of the healthiest fruits around.
The orange flesh is a dead giveaway to the rich source of antioxidant nutrients such as carotenes, vitamin C and flavonoids found in it.
It also has B vitamins folate and pantothenic acid; and minerals potassium, copper and magnesium; and fibre.
Together, they promote the health of the cardiovascular system and also protect against colon cancer. In addition, papaya contains the digestive enzyme papain, which helps to lower inflammation in the body.
The ripeness of the fruit is important in this recipe as you want it half-ripe: sweet enough to please and yet not so ripe as to turn mushy and end up the dominant note after frying.
A stir-fried papaya would also add an element of surprise to an Asian meal, and could replace the usual stir-fried greens.
It would create a pleasant stir round the table when people find out that it is papaya that you have presented, but in a fashion quite unlike anything else they would have encountered before.
I could eat it on its own with a bowl of (brown) rice, adding lots more red chilli for yet more heat and nutrition to my meal.
•Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Her previous Eat To Live recipes can be found in two cookbooks, Eat To Live and Taste.
Make it healthier
Papaya is a low-calorie, low-sugar fruit (39kcal per 100g).
A rich source of antioxidant nutrients, it contains both carotenes and flavonoids.
It has one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C - a cup or 140g of papaya cubes can provide 140 per cent of your daily needs.
(Analysis based on 10 prawns and six servings. Per serve - 160g)
Energy: 94 kcal
Total fat: 2.5g
Saturated fat: 0.4g
Dietary fibre: 1.9g
Cholesterol: 16.1 mg
Papaya also contains B vitamins, folate, potassium, magnesium and fibre, which all promote cardiovascular health.
Ripe and green papayas have similar nutritive values. However, green ones have higher potassium and papain levels. Papain, an enzyme that digests protein, can aid the digestive system.
Bitter gourds, also known as bitter melons, are high in fibre and low in calories, like most vegetables. The calorie count comes in at just 17kcal per 100g.
Bitter melons are also rich in vitamin C, with a cup or 93g providing 130 per cent of your daily needs.
Some studies show that bitter melon fruit, fruit juice or extract can improve glucose tolerance, reduce blood sugar levels and lower HbA1c (a measure of blood sugar control over time) in those with type 2 diabetes.
However, research results have been conflicting and inconclusive.
Prawns are a lean source of protein. You get 21g of protein but only 1g of fat per 100g of prawn meat.
Still, prawns are high in cholesterol, with 195mg per 100g - chicken breast might contain only 58mg.
Even so, some studies show that eating shrimp while on a healthy diet does not affect blood cholesterol levels.
Fermented black beans, however, are high in sodium and should be taken sparingly.
This recipe is a healthy one that can be made even healthier by using light soya sauce bearing the Health Promotion Board's Healthier Choice Symbol. Going with a low-sodium soya sauce could cut your sodium intake by 16 per cent.
Instead of vegetable oil, try olive oil or canola oil as they are low in saturated fat but high in monounsaturated fat.
Principal dietitian, Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre