Pawpaw Patrol: Yes, We Have Indiana Bananas

These days, the potato-shaped, yellow-green treasures are practically exotic fruits.
Illustration by Claire Harrup

DESCRIBED AS a hardy tropical fruit that tastes like a cross between a banana, mango, and pineapple, the Asimina triloba was seemingly once so plentiful that it inspired a folksy children’s song: “Pickin’ up pawpaws. Put ’em in a basket … Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.” But these days, the potato-shaped, yellow-green treasures (which are related to the custard-apple, cherimoya, and soursop) are practically exotic fruits. They usually grow in groves of low trees and along rivers and streams, and anyone lucky enough to have access to a modern-day “pawpaw patch” knows to wait until the oblong fruits begin dropping from the branches in the fall, yielding scoopable, custard-like innards. Indiana lies right in the sweet spot for pawpaw trees, which grow wild across the southern states and as far north as Michigan. Due to the fruit’s distinct flavor and texture, Hoosiers have dubbed it the Indiana banana—though to be fair, our neighbors to the east claim it as the state fruit of Ohio.

The Hoosier Pawpaw company, a forest farming business, sells frozen pawpaw pulp and seeds (as well a “Who’s yer pawpaw?” T-shirts). Upland Brewing Company makes a pawpaw-flavored, barrel-aged, fruited sour ale. And chefs at top restaurants such as Milktooth have played around with the hyper-seasonal ingredient.

The pawpaw has managed to achieve such Top Chef status despite its tendency to be anything but easy to work with. The skin bruises in an instant, and the flesh is shot through with rows of flat seeds. Pawpaws, like the temperamental avocado, are at their peak when slightly soft to the touch. You can’t cut into one too soon or let it linger a day too long.

If pawpaws are indeed having a moment (and in Indiana, that moment occurs sometime between September and October) be sure to take full advantage of it. “I just made some pawpaw–coconut milk ice cream,” says Carrie Vrabel, a wild-food forager who is working on an Indiana University Press guide to wild edible plants native to the state. She freezes pawpaws to store them but insists the best way to enjoy one is to simply cut it open and bite into it. “It’s never better than when you get it perfectly ripe.”

HOW TO EAT A PAWPAW in the wild

STEP ONE: Find a pawpaw tree. This is usually the most challenging step.

STEP TWO: Shake the tree.

STEP THREE: Gather up the pawpaws. Perfectly ripe ones will have a slight give when you press on them. A few brown blotches are fine.

STEP FOUR: Slice horizontally around the pawpaw as you would an avocado to form two bowls. The skin is delicate enough to be pierced with a fingernail, but do not eat the skin.

STEP FIVE: Use a spoon to loosen the pulp from the cavity. Eat it.

STEP SIX: Spit out the seeds.