What Are Pawpaws, and Why Are People So Obsessed with Them?

Here's everything you need to know about the largest, and only tropical, fruit that hails from the continental U.S.

pawpaw fruit on a white background
Photo: hawk111/Getty Images

If you don't live in the eastern part of the United States, it's likely that you're not familiar with pawpaws. Or, even if you have heard of them, you might still be wondering, what exactly is a pawpaw? More importantly, you'd probably like to know why some people are so excited about them. For the uninitiated, it's hard to understand the fruit's cult-like following ​​— especially if you've only seen their slick green skin and gelatinous interior, without tasting a bite.

Rest assured, you're in the right place if you're looking for answers about the pawpaw (also referred to as papaw, paw paw, or paw-paw) fruit. Of course, the most important answer to "what is a pawpaw?" is a simple one: absolutely delicious.

What Do Pawpaws Taste Like?

The first time you taste a pawpaw, you'll notice that the flavor and texture are almost unlike any other fruit. Often called "North America's tropical fruit," as it is the only such fruit indigenous to the continental U.S., pawpaws taste boldly bright, vibrant, and tropical. Imagine a mix of mango, banana, and a hint of tangy passion fruit, and you'll have a close approximation of a pawpaw's unique flavor.

Individual pawpaws are typically three to six inches long, and are coated in a waxy, green skin. The pale yellow flesh of the pawpaw fruit is almost custardy; it's incredibly soft and jelly-like, and offers a juicy mouth-feel. The easiest (and arguably best) way to enjoy a pawpaw is to cut the fruit in half and squeeze the edible flesh from the peel directly into your mouth. You can also scoop the fruit's flesh away from the skin with a spoon, but this method can be a bit unwieldy given the pawpaw's slick, gel-like consistency.

However you approach eating a pawpaw, be mindful of the large black seeds — you'll need to spit them out or eat around them, as both the seeds and the skin of pawpaws are toxic to humans.

What Is Pawpaw Fruit Good For?

If you can resist the urge to eat them all out of hand on the car ride home, pawpaws are a versatile fruit that can be used in many different applications. For example, pawpaw ice cream is a common summer treat when pawpaw season is in full swing. Because a ripe pawpaw is basically a puree on the inside anyway, it's a snap to incorporate it into your favorite Philadelphia-style ice cream base or sorbet recipe. Of course, ice cream is just the start. You can use a bounty of pawpaws to make anything from a quick bread to delicious homemade jam. In fact, you can swap in pawpaw puree just about anywhere you'd typically use mango or papaya puree.

Because pawpaws should only be picked when totally ripe, the clock is ticking once you bring them home. If you don't have a game plan quite yet, you can prolong the life of your fruit by squeezing out all the flesh (making sure to pick out every seed) and freezing it in a freezer-safe container, with a few drops of lemon juice mixed in, to use for later. Beyond extending the shelf life of your fruit, this makes it perfect for whipping up a pawpaw smoothie in a snap.

Where Do Papaw Trees Grow?

Pawpaws are the regionally-specific fruit of the ​​Asimina triloba tree, native to the eastern United States (but not too close to the coast) and southern Canada. Besides being the only tropical fruit indigenous to the continental United States, pawpaws are also considered the largest fruit native to North America. The Mid-Atlantic, South Eastern U.S., and more southern areas of the Midwest are the sweet spot for pawpaws, and you won't typically find them far from where they're grown. Due to their extreme perishability, you won't usually find pawpaws in grocery stores, unfortunately. If you're in an area where the curious tropical fruit grows, your best bet for striking pawpaw gold is to seek out farmers' markets, local farmers, or even befriend a neighbor with a pawpaw tree!

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