Ababai and papaya are often incorrectly thought to be the same fruit. This is because there are two different definitions of ababai:
- The original term Caribbean natives used for the papaya fruit. "Papaya" was derived from "ababai" and some regions in the Caribbean still use the word today.
- A different species of fruit (Vasconcella cundinamarcensis) that is related to papaya (Carica papaya).
The ababai, also known as "mountain papaya" or "mountain papaw" is a member of the Caricacae family along with some species of papaya. Ababai is native to the tropical mountain areas of Chile. A few other countries also grow ababai, but Chile is the only country that exports the fruit to other countries including the United States. This exportation is important for the Chilean economy and the ababai is considered a protected fruit.
Ababai trees grow in tropical regions with warm temperatures and plenty of rain. The trees reach only ten feet tall and have a long slender trunk. Large leaves grow outward at a perpendicular angle to the trunk. The trees produce large green to yellow hairy flowers several times a year. These flowers develop into ababai fruit that grow in tight clusters on the trunk, similar to papaya. The trees live for only eight years and produce fruit for five. Ababai trees commonly grow in the wild in Chile but recently have been cultivated for commercial use.
The ababai fruit looks almost identical to a papaya. The fruit is about the size of a fist and is slightly oblong with gentle ridges. The thin skin ranges in color from yellow-green to orange. Inside the flesh is rather firm and can be cream or orange in color. The middle of the fruit is filled with numerous brown seeds about the size of currants. Unlike papaya that has a hollow center, the ababai's center is filled with seeds and a thin, viscous flesh, sort of like a melon.
Ababais are very difficult to find in the United States, however a growing number are imported from Chile every year. Ababais range from sweet to sour and have a unique tropical taste somewhat like a mango or pineapple. They can be eaten fresh like papaya and also are firm enough to be sauteed, stewed, and grilled. In Chile ababai is commonly made into preserves and candies. Cooking the fruit turns the flesh a brilliant gold color. The fruit will freeze and can well. Both ababais and papayas contain papain, an enzyme that breaks down proteins. Because of this the fruits will boost the tenderizing power of a marinade but will prevent jell-o from setting. Papaya or mango can serve as substitutes.