Unripe papaya, also known as green papaya, is a common fruit in southeast Asia. Both the ripe and unripe form of papaya has a variety of culinary uses. Unripe papaya is probably most well known in Filipino cuisine for being the key ingredient in the condiment called atchara, which uses pickled green papaya as the primary ingredient. But a lesser known use for green papaya is as an alternative meat tenderizer.
Green papaya contains an enzyme called papain. The whole peeled green papaya and even the leaves of the papaya tree contain this (papain) enzyme. Now there is a lot science and math involved in what exactly goes on with this papain compound and the meat. The short explanation is that it has the ability to break down the collagen in muscle tissues, which is the main protein that holds many different kinds of meat together. This makes green papaya (or the papain in it) an excellent, all-natural meat tenderizer.
There are two common ways of utilizing green papaya in this manner. One, is to thinly slice it and lay it on the meat directly. This is definitely the simpler of the two options. The second option is to puree the green papaya into a fine paste that can then be spread on the meat of your choice. The paste is the more flexible of the two preparations. This would make the paste especially useful for irregularly shaped meats. That said, this works as a meat tenderizer on a wider variety meats such as chicken, beef, lamb, and pork.
Before you run out and grab a green papaya to give this a try, there are some important factors you need to consider. The most important of those factors is knowing and understanding the type of meat you are using. This is because the amount of green papaya you should use, how you use it, and how long it should be used will depend on the particular cut of meat you are going to be using it on.
For example, if you have a relatively thin cut of beef or pork (like a steak), thinly sliced green papaya would work perfectly. But if you have piece of meat like a pork shoulder or pot roast, the paste would be much more effective at evenly covering the surface of the meat. But if you don’t happen to have a food processor or some other way of mechanically pureeing the green papaya, the paste not be a good option unless you can find it for sale at the store. Keep things like this in mind when you do go to the store. A little planning ahead never hurt anybody.
A general rule of thumb to keep in mind is to use 2 tablespoons of the green papaya meat tenderizer paste for every pound of meat. Maybe a little more for particularly tough cuts of meat. Apply the paste to the surface of the meat and briefly massage the paste into the meat. The green papaya will need to marinate on the meat for between 20-30 minutes. The lower end of that time frame would be for leaner cuts of meat that are naturally more tender with the higher end of the scale being for the more firm cuts of meat, like a roast or a flank. Be aware that the meat tenderization process will continue until heat is applied to the meat. Once the marinating time is complete, cook the meat immediately.
- Start by peeling a whole green papaya until the white flesh is exposed.
- Cut the papaya in half and then take a spoon and scoop out the premature seeds, if there are any.
- If you only need the thin slices of papaya, cut it thinly and stop here, otherwise skip this step and continue.
- Chop the papaya into small cubes then puree the cubes in a food processor with a little water until you have a fine paste.
- Use whatever you need now and freeze the rest in ice cube trays for later use.
This trick can come in handy in a pinch if you have a green papaya available, a tough cut of meat to cook and not a lot of time to cook it. Just bear in mind that there is no precise formula for this given the inconsistencies in composition and texture from one meat to another. But it can still be a useful tool if you try it a few times and know how to use it. So give it a try!