This week we have a bonus foraging post! Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: pawpaws. The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is almost as mythical a foraging find as morels and ramps. The difference? I actually found pawpaw fruit!
The fruit is extremely soft when ripe, the yellowish green skin easily torn, and it often looks unsightly with discolored or black spots. Which means you’ll never find pawpaws in grocery stores! The pawpaw is indigenous to the Appalachians. Luckily I live just on the outskirts of the mountains so of course I had to try finding some for myself!
The pawpaw is a short understory tree. (Or an overgrown shrub.) The trick was first recognizing the huge leaves in the local woods; then spying the fruit high up in the branches. There are some guidelines to tracking pawpaws here. They don’t always produce fruit consistently, depending on the conditions from year to year. They are pollinated by flies instead of bees, so apparently roadkill or scat helps produce more fruit. The larger ones seem to produce the most fruit, which unfortunately means they are out of reach. Once I finally confirmed the trees with fruit, I began stalking a few local groves.
Fast forward several months to early September. I didn’t mean to come home with an armload of the fruit. I just wanted to check if any nuts had fallen from the possible butternut tree. But the road was muddy where we wanted to pull over, so we drove about a mile or so past the tree. And since we were going to be near the pawpaw groves anyway, we decided to check how close the fruit was to being ripe.
I figured we were still a few weeks early because any fruit we could reach to check was rock hard. Thankfully, my husband remembered something I’d just told him from my recent reading of Eating Appalachia. You know the fruit is fully ripe when it falls to the ground. So while I was looking up (in disappointment), he looked down. Sure enough, green ripe fruit lay scatted among the leaves and weeds. So it didn’t matter after all that the fruit grew out of reach. Except may be it getting more bruised on its way to the ground. Critters and ants had beaten us to a few, but we still gathered a lot.
Interestingly enough, when we checked other trees, there were no fruit found on the ground at all. Not sure if they had already been eaten by forest creatures, found by other foragers, or just hadn’t ripened enough to fall yet. We also collected the end of a branch loaded with fruit that seemed almost ripe. Still to be determined whether they only will ripen on the plant (like strawberries) or off the plant (like tomatoes).
The seeds are huge compared to the overall fruit size, and present a challenge to effectively eating the fruit or extracting its pulp. The easiest method is to slice open the fruit and eat the yellow pulp with a spoon, discarding the seeds as you encounter them like watermelon seeds. (Except don’t try to swallow these, please!) Each fruit tastes different, and no two people will interpret the flavor the same way. The one consistent impression is “tropical”. You can variously experience banana, vanilla, mango, or pear. Or a mix of multiple flavors. The flavor is overwhelmingly sweet; I couldn’t eat very much since I eat very little sugar in my diet. Sometimes there is a bitter aftertaste, which may increase as the flesh oxidizes. I haven’t worked with it enough to confirm if that is the case. The texture is like custard, or pudding.
After eating a few, we processed the pulp from the rest. We tried to use a food mill, but the size of the seeds prevented the mill from turning at all. So we separated seeds and skin by hand, then ran the resulting pulp through the food mill for a more consistent texture. We ended up with about two cops. I added a tablespoon of lemon juice to help preserve the color. I used part of it to make the Eating Appalachia recipe Pawpaw simple syrup – yes, for cocktails. Don’t judge!
The Pawpaw Whiskey Sour recipe was waaaaay too sweet for me; instead of 2 parts pawpaw syrup to 1.5 parts whiskey, our ratio ended up closer to 1 part pawpaw to 2 parts whiskey. We froze the rest of the pulp for future use… maybe for ice cream! The possibilities are endless.
If you cannot forage pawpaws locally, you can actually order frozen pulp online, for example from Integration Acres.
Obligatory warning: some people feel sick, even to the point of nausea, after eating pawpaw. Always sample new foods in small amounts first to ensure they agree with you before eating larger amounts. Additional foraging safety tips are here.