The Papaya Tree

I grew a  tree. Now there's something I did not think I'd be saying. Trees were always something I perceived to be out of my league as an urban apartment dweller. To be honest this was a particularly easy tree, a Papaya tree, which, in the space of a year grew about nine feet tall and has been for the last few months successfully bearing fruit, smaller than the ones we get at market but sweeter and with more flavor it's flesh a more vibrant color.

This explains its ubiquitous presence in the tropical garden - or used to. Back in the day, everyone had a few Papaya trees growing in their backyard. I don't remember  us ever buying this staple fruit usually served daily at breakfast. I still remember my parents, on vacation, ordering room service at  the Railway Station Hotel in Kuala Lumpur (now well past it's prime), bringing the classic post colonial breakfast of eggs, kippers and a slice of Papaya served with a wedge of lime, white napkins and heavy silverware.

Perhaps of all the fruit trees, Papayas because of their quick maturation, easy care and continous fruit production are the most likely to be grown in neighborhood gardens although by and large it is a practise that has been abandoned in favor of purchasing them from the supermarkets or day or night markets as properties shrink and the little land they are on, concreted over.

When I first returned, we got our papayas from the day market following my Dad's method of fruit and vegetable shopping- immutable loyalty. He only frequented one vegetable and one fruit stall in the market - the same ones he has patronized for years. If the fruit lady did not have papayas, we went home without any despite the fact that the next stall would have a mound of them. Invariably, on the way home he would also remark how he could depend on her to select the best ones, which as I was to discover when I started buying them myself, her choices weren't that reliable. Often they might be ripe but not sweet and without much flavor.

I have since become the designated fruit and vegetable shopper, with a diametrically opposite approach- zero loyalty spreading my fickle patronage across the supermarket, various day and night markets and the occasional stall on the roadside - picking and choosing things that seem more seasonal, selecting vendors that seem more successful or more specialized, which is how I came to find the couple at the night market who only sold Papayas and always only had a few left by the time I arrived. After three purchases, it became clear that their Papayas were significantly better than any other and I searched for them everytime I went - they weren't always there probably because they had sold out and gone home.

They are a quiet pair, weighing up your selection, hardly looking up. When I asked where the fruit was from, he told me he buys them  from farms close to the city but he only selects ripe fruit because he does not use chemicals to ripen them. In contrast, the other fruit vendors are laden with boxes of apples from New Zealand, pears from China, out of season mangoes from Thailand and dubiously ripened papayas, while their immigrant staff from Indonesia or Myanmar hustle and call out to the passing trade.

Therein lies the global story of produce that's happening here too with the local twist that - even though we don't have weather limits to our growing season, we are still importing fruits to enjoy them year round outside their typical annual fruiting cycle and we manipulate their ripening process to make for easier transport and storage. We also import tasteless homogenized cool temperate fruits like apples and pears because many locals think they are 'better'. It's a leftover psychology from colonial days- if it's imported it must be better. This, in a land where fruit is so plentiful, cheap, so unique, and so diverse.  Thankfully our Papaya tree and the couple at the night market helps to circumvent this madnesss with the added payoff of having fruit that has significantly better color and flavor.

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