Fruit of the Angels
Visiting a Papaya Farm in Southern Taiwan
Text: Steven Crook
Photos: Maggie Song
Papayas aren’t native to Taiwan. They are from Central America, and it’s said that when Christopher Columbus tried one during his historic voyages of exploration in the late 15th century, he described it as the “fruit of the angels.” Like many other crops, papayas grow superbly well in Taiwan thanks to its abundance of water and flora-friendly climate. Sometimes called the pawpaw, the hefty reddish-orange fruit is sold at markets up and down the island. To learn more – and enjoy the freshest imaginable product – Travel in Taiwan recently visited the southern county of Chiayi.
Carica papaya – the scientific name of the papaya tree – is a relatively recent addition to Taiwan’s landscape, having been introduced to the island from the Chinese mainland around 1907. These spindly, fast-growing plants are now seen throughout the island, individually in private gardens or cultivated by the hundred, beneath nets, in farm fields.
In terms of quantity, Taiwan’s papaya hotspot is Pingtung County, in the far south. A good many are also grown in Tainan. However, Chiayi County’s Zhongpu Township has won a reputation for producing consistently excellent papayas, so it was to this township, located between Chiayi City and the mountain resort of Alishan, that we recently drove in search of knowledge and yummy fruit. Thanks to Mr. Chen Yong-ming, who is an official in Zhongpu Township’s Farmers’ Association as well as a papaya grower, we got both.
According to Mr. Chen, who looks after approximately 8,000 papaya trees on 4.85 hectares of farmland, Zhongpu’s main advantage is its climate. Even though most of the township is less than 200 meters above sea level, nighttime temperatures are considerably lower than those in the daytime, and this facilitates the healthy development of the trees.
Guessing that Mr. Chen would be a typical Taiwanese farmer – in other words, modest to a fault – and wouldn’t be one to make boastful claims about the fruit he grows, I had researched the health benefits of fresh papaya before our meeting. What I discovered impressed me. A normal-sized papaya is typically 20 to 30cm long, as wide as your fist, and weighs between 600g and 1kg. Half a papaya gives you enough vitamin C for two whole days, contains a fifth of the fiber you should consume each day, and one-seventh of the daily recommended intakes for vitamin A, potassium, magnesium, and copper. The orange flesh is butter-like in texture, and half a papaya is unlikely to have more than 120 calories.
Almost all the papayas grown in Taiwan, Mr. Chen informed us, are one of two variants: Risheng or Tainong 2. The latter, a Thai subspecies that is a hybrid of the former, is longer and less oval. By way of comparison, he added that papayas grown in the Philippines are rounder and yellower than their Taiwanese equivalents.
Left alone, papaya trees grow dead straight and bear fruit near the top. Because the trunks aren’t usually strong enough to support a ladder, harvesting becomes difficult as soon as the tree grows taller than a man. This is why many papaya farmers clear-cut their trees when they’re about three years old and invest in younger, shorter saplings. Each time this is done, however, the farmer must wait 10 months until the tree is mature enough to produce decent fruit.
Zhongpu’s farmers have hit upon an alternative. They force the lower part of each tree to grow almost horizontally, so that even when the tree is five or six years old, the fruit is still within reach. These L-shaped trees are said to produce sweeter-tasting fruit (because the papayas swell more slowly). Also, because there’s a constant trickle of fruit ready for harvesting – rather than a lot one month and none the next – there’s less need for the farmer to hire additional labor.
If you visit Zhongpu any time between September and April, you’ll have no problem finding quality papayas in the township’s markets. The best purchases are those which show no green on their skins, and which are slightly soft but not mushy when pressed. Within 24 hours, these will be perfect to eat. Cut each papaya in half, and remove the seeds with a spoon. Don’t eat the seeds; they’re not harmful, but are rather astringent. Then scoop out and eat the flesh.
As in other parts of Taiwan, Zhongpu’s papayas are cultivated in enclosures of very fine netting. This isn’t to stop birds gorging on the fruit, as you might suppose, but rather because papayas are vulnerable to a virus carried by aphids. Netting fine enough to stop aphids doesn’t come cheap: NT$180,000 for a field covering 970 square meters. If you step into one of these netted enclosures, you’ll notice that much of the ground is covered with plastic sheeting. At first glance, this might seem far from eco-friendly. However, as Mr. Chen pointed out, the use of plastic actually reduces the need for pesticides by countering both weeds and insect infestation. Moreover, because the sheeting stops the soil from drying out, it reduces the need for watering during dry spells as well.
Mr. Chen and his fellow farmers collect papayas when they’re still a dark shade of green, just before they ripen, because at this time they’re less likely to bruise. They also avoid harvesting in wet weather, because the papayas may end up marked with conspicuous handprints, which reduces their market value.
At the nearby packaging center, Mr. Chen explained another trick of the trade. When papayas are packed in cardboard boxes for shipment to market, the shredded newspaper used as padding isn’t the only thing added. A small amount of solid ethylene is wrapped in a sheet of newspaper and placed inside; the naturally occurring gas this chemical emits acts as a ripening agent, ensuring the fruit are ready for sale when unpacked.
Not all papayas are eaten in the form of fresh fruit. Papaya pork-rib soup, for example, is a healthful, warming dish. Another papaya-based dish is zesty green papaya salad, which incorporates slivers of carrot and green beans, peanuts, sliced cherry tomatoes and dried shrimps, as well as strips of unripe papaya. Even more popular – and perfect for summer afternoons when you want an alternative to water or soda – are the papaya milkshakes available from roadside stalls. You won’t have to search long in Zhongpu Township if you’re looking for someone selling this concoction, which is made by mixing chunks of fresh papaya, milk, crushed ice, and a dash of sugar in a blender.
Zhongpu Township’s Farmers’ Association also supervises the production of some papaya-related products, such as pickled papaya and papaya enzyme. The latter, called papain, is found in the leaves as well as the fruit, and can be added to water to make a healthy beverage.
Getting to Zhongpu
Most visitors come by car. From the Zhongpu Exit on National Freeway 3 it takes less than 10 minutes to reach the downtown area. Motorcyclists can use Taiwan Provincial Highway 3, a road which runs almost the entire length of the island.
Fengshan Ecology Garden
Take Highway 3 south from Zhongpu and you’ll soon reach Fengshan Ecology Garden (tel:  203-1146; 8 a.m. ~5 p.m. daily; free admission). Spending an hour or two here is worthwhile if you’ve an interest in exotic plants and fruit. Rambutans, Tahitian apples, and Jabuticaba (tree grapes) are grown here; come at the right time of year and you can buy some to eat on the spot. The garden is just inland of the little village of Yunshui. If your next destination from there is the hot-spring resort of Guanziling, consider taking the strikingly steep and scenic County Road 172 south from Yunshui.
English and Chinese
|green papaya salad||青木瓜沙拉|
|papaya pork-rib soup||木瓜豬骨湯|
Fengshan Ecology Garden (豐山生態園區)
Add: 18, Puding, Shenkeng Village, Zhongpu Township, Chiayi County (嘉義縣中埔鄉深坑村埔頂18號)
Tel:(05) 203-1146, 253-6146
Website: www.feng-shan.com.tw (Chinese)