This Midwest ‘Forgotten Fruit’ Is Making A Comeback — Where You Can Find It

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Pawpaw fruit, also called the custard applePhoto credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

Why the renewed interest in pawpaws? Named Missouri’s state fruit in 2019, pawpaws are a tropical fruit native to North America. They are frequently referred to as “Ozark bananas” because they grow in the region. As part of the farm-to-table movement, people are interested in where their food comes from, and they want to source it locally, if possible. In 2018, three-fourths of Americans said they were actively trying to include local foods into their diets — according to Gallup, a marketing research firm.

What Are Pawpaws?

Often referred to as Missouri’s “forgotten fruit,” pawpaws are an edible type of custard apple, growing on branches of large shrubs ranging up to small trees. In the wild, the plant typically grows on river banks and in other moist areas. The banana-shaped, cylindrical fruits are harvested between late August and September. Pawpaws can be eaten raw or cooked, but if the fruit isn’t picked when it is “perfectly ripened,” it often doesn’t taste good.

Pawpaw fruit is considered “very perishable.” This makes them difficult to transport and ultimately distribute. Even newly-bred pawpaws have a short shelf-life. As part of its ongoing research, the University of Missouri is studying the effectiveness of edible coatings to understand better preservation techniques.

Now, you’re probably thinking that it would be easier to harvest wild pawpaws. You’ll have to beat out numerous critters that have a taste for the fruit. (We’re looking at you, dratted squirrel.) In the wild, pawpaw fruits are small, about the size of an egg, and the fruit’s pulp-to-seed ratio is about 25 percent. Breeding increases this to a nearly 75-percent pulp-to-seed ratio.

Where Can I Buy Pawpaws?

Right now, the main way folks can purchase pawpaws is at a farmers market. This is because the average shelf life of an unrefrigerated pawpaw fruit is 3–5 days. Growers can’t get the fruit to grocery stores quickly enough. In addition, the pawpaw is fragile and bruises easily.

I Brought It Home, Now What Do I Do With It?

The most common pawpaw fruit uses are for recipes where their custard-like texture and mild tropical flavor (think bananas) enhance beverages, candies, pies, puddings, cocktails, and other dishes. To prepare them, peel the fruit and then smash the pulp and seeds through a food mill or sieve. The remaining pulp can be used immediately, refrigerated for a couple of days, or frozen for another time.

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