In search of the perfect papaya
Bad farming practices have all but eradicated once-favoured varieties, but some farmers understand their importance and value, and go to special lengths to ensure their survival
For most Thais, mention of the word "papaya" usually summons up thoughts of som tam, but the significance of this common fruit isn't limited to its role as the chief ingredients in that sour and spicy salad. It has many other uses, some with deep roots in traditional Thai culture.
The papaya came to Thailand during the Middle Ayutthaya Period, about 300 years ago. During the centuries since it has been used in many aspects of Thai life. The branches, leaves and roots were once used medicinally. Swelling, for example, was treated by pounding the leaves with liquor and then spreading the mixture over the swollen area. The white sap was applied to bites or stings from poisonous insects, and the long leaf stems were used as breathing tubes for use when it was necessary to go under water for some reason, to catch fish, for example, or to hide during wartime combat (the shape of the end of the stalk fit the mouth perfectly).
One object that shows a way in which the papaya tree was used in the past is a very thin writing tablet, one foot across and two feet long, that was coated with resin from a native milkweed and coloured a shiny black, with an elaborately ornamented frame. It was used by King Rama IV to write down calculations connected with the astrological calendar. The tablet was made from papaya wood, and its lightness and handy size made it convenient to hold. Its dimensions show that papaya trees of a remarkably large size once grew in Thailand.
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