When Chris Low opened Hainan Chicken House with his family in Sunset Park earlier this year, the idea was to offer its namesake poached chicken. In the process, the casual Malaysian spot has become known to fans for some of the city’s most exciting specials — from rose chiffon cake with lychee-champagne jam to yellowtail fish curry and mussels in a curry broth with roti. The latest is rojak, a fruit salad that will debut on the menu this weekend, with Low’s twist: Here, it’s studded with pawpaw. It’ll be a test of whether a version of the dish should remain on the permanent menu.
Pawpaw, an indigenous fruit to eastern parts of America, which has various names depending on the tribe, has been described as a creamy “blend of banana, pineapple, and mango” that’s drawing attention in conversations around climate change. It is also notoriously hard to source for local chefs, in part due to its short growing season, a fickle lifespan, and seemingly largely ignored on New York menus due to lack of commercial viability. In recent years, the interest in the elusive fruit and its preservation has only increased as its reputation, honoring of indigenous land stewardship, and means of sourcing it, gains momentum, as a recent report by the New York Times showcased.
This weekend, Nature Based is hosting its fourth annual pawpaw sale to the public — fans eager to get their hands on the fruit can head to the Nature Based headquarters at 113 Wolcott Street, near Van Brunt Street, in Red Hook; on Saturday, October 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sunday until 4 p.m. Owner Fred Wolf didn’t intend to be one of the main purveyors of pawpaw in New York, it kind of just happened, he says.
Through the year, his company designs and builds gardens for schools and works on private landscape projects — they’re not really in the fruit business; the pawpaws became a labor of love. But in the process, he’s been the wholesale pawpaw plug for restaurants like Hainan Chicken House. “It aligns with our values to honor and work with native plants,” says Wolf, who sources the fruit from Threefold Farm, a farm in Pennsylvania — the closest place he’s been able to get it in large quantities with this level of quality, he says.
Chef Diego Moya, who helms the food program at wine bars June and Anaïs, under the Oberon Group umbrella, says he’s always put pawpaw on the menu wherever he’s worked in the past. “Pawpaw is nearly impossible to source. Over the years I’ve caught wind here and there about people having a few trees, knowing a friend that had found some, or occasionally the local foragers have rounded up enough to drop off and sell. I’ve not seen the fruit available from any purveyor, at any level,” he says.
Aside from backyards here and there — like that of Brooklyn pawpaw fanatic Reza Farzan, as profiled by the Times — that are growing the fruit here in the city and selling the seeds on sites like Etsy, Wolf is one of a small handful of restaurant wholesalers. Companies like Farm to People sell the fruit (though they are currently marked as sold-out); they have also been found in the GrowNYC Grand Army Plaza farmer’s market this time of year and select upstate nurseries. Fulgurances Laundromat in Greenpoint sources their pawpaw from a forager in Pennsylvania.
Still, the market is niche: other companies, like Natoora, otherwise known for hard-to-find produce, do not currently offer it to chefs, according to a representative for the brand.
The pawpaw’s incredibly short lifespan means there’s a catch-it-if-you-can quality for restaurants, which can make it a flex to have it at all. It’s a specialty product and priced as such: Nature Based is selling them for $100 for 10 pounds this weekend, and $80 for “makers, seed spreaders, restaurants, haberdashers [sic], brewers, witches, distillers, etc.”
Due to its delicate nature, prone to bruising, and speed at which it needs to be processed, Moya says he’s turned the pulp into a puree and frozen it, in the past, transforming it into ice cream or mousse: “The flavor and texture remind me of cherimoya which I grew up eating as a kid,” he says. Using pawpaw from Nature Based, he’ll be putting it in a short-lived dessert on the opening menu of the Oberon Group’s forthcoming Manhattan restaurant.
Brooklyn restaurant and bakery, Runner & Stone has been open since 2012; it is the first year they’re making “a concerted effort” to source pawpaws. To start they’ve ordered about 12 pounds of the fruit, with plans to use it as a condiment or topping for a sandwich, and perhaps desserts like a custard tart or cake. “Ice cream is an easy go to where its tropical flavors and creamy consistency can really shine, you have to make the most of it while you can, after all,” says owner Chris Pizzulli.
Other bakeries like Moonrise Bakehouse in Sunset Park, are also sourcing from Nature Based this year and plan to use for a pastry cream for croissants and mini tarts, as well as potentially make it into a banana bread-style loaf.
Gowanus restaurant Café Mars, another one of Nature Based’s clients, says they’ve gotten cold emails from various pawpaw foragers eager to sell it to them this year: “There’s no change in the existence of pawpaw, there’s no change in restaurants wanting to use local produce, but all the forces conspired, a velocity behind it that’s unexplainable,” says co-owner Paul D’Avino.
D’Avino says he went with Nature Based, in part because he could stand behind the transparent sourcing as he would with any other product. They’ll use it on the dessert menu, where there’s always a rotating fruit dish with zabaglione. But they’re also getting some to experiment with the bar and plan to ferment and/or freeze it to extend its life.
“We’re just really excited about ingredients, we’re curious people, so getting to use things we don’t always and try and find out how they can work for us is really fun and exciting for us,” says D’Avino. “But it’s definitely not ‘we have this and you don’t,’” says D’Avino, “it’s just cool to showcase a fruit people might not be familiar with.”
Will there be enough interest from buyers for the hundreds of pounds of pawpaw Wolf has brought in from out-of-state? He’s not worried. “They always go!” he says. “We’re typically sold out by the second day if it even goes that long.” Whatever doesn’t sell, he and his team eat and keep the seeds for planting.
Wolf continues his annual pawpaw sales to help with their repopulation in New York, making them more accessible to chefs and home cooks again. In his free time, he plants the seeds around the city, in spots like Prospect Park. “I have a vision of New York becoming the place for pawpaw [again] — it’s a native indigenous fruit to our area, after all — and it becoming a thing that people look forward to more and more each year.” Pawpaw trees will also be for sale at Nature Based this weekend to anyone who wishes to start growing them at home. “I just want to get into more peoples’ hands and have them taste it.”
For Wolf and other pawpaw fans, there is beauty in the fleeting nature. “It’s a quick burst of flavor in the fall... and then it’s time for winter.”