Five years ago Ian Purkayastha, then 16, took out his life savings ($100) to buy Burgundy truffles on eBay, only to turn around and sell them at sky high prices to chefs in his home state of Arkansas. One year later he opted out of college to become the US president of the Italian truffle company P.A.Q., importing fresh truffles into the American market.
Now Ian is 21 and living in Brooklyn, where he works as a full-time food salesman, making fat stacks hustling fresh (and expensive) food products through the back doors of Michelin-starred restaurants around NYC. He's got an impressive client list of over 300 restaurants nationwide that includes well known chefs like Sean Brock, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. On any given day, you can find Ian b-lining straight through the back door of fancy kitchens, toting a chilled down backpack filled with $60,000 worth of white truffles, Moscow millionaire-quality caviar, and nondescript packages stuffed with a gamble of strange items—trout placenta, anyone? He almost always has legal seasonal shrooms on hand, like blue chanterelles and bears tooth, that can be hard to find beyond the floors of his delivery van, unless you're tight with a mushroom forager in the Pacific Northwest.
Like an uncanny blend of Raymond from Rain Man and Stringer Bell from The Wire, Ian’s always one step ahead of chefs with his scope of food knowledge, rattling off both scientific and odd facts about the "species and sub-species," of whatever he's selling. His artfully smooth sales pitch and high quality product offerings allow Ian to move caviar, truffles, wild fruits, and mushrooms out of the back of his delivery van so quickly, product vanishes with the blink of a back alley (of the restaurant) deal.
In the interest of filling our bellies with the most delicious and obscure foods in the world, we decided to give Ian a column called Dealers Choice. Every week he will tell us what top chefs are stocking their kitchens with, and drop us scrumptious morsels from his encyclopedic knowledge of specialty food items. We’re kicking off this series with Ian’s cheat sheet on the gateway fruit pawpaw. It's the oldest fruit native to North America, and pretty hard to come by, unless you give him a ring.
Useless, or Useful Information
Pawpaw was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite fruit, so much so that he planted his own grove of them at Monticello. Some slang terminology for these (if you're trying to buy them off the street from some random forager) include the “Indiana banana,” “Hoosier banana,” “Poor Man's banana,” or the hardcore scientific name, “Asimina Triloba.”
There are over 27 varieties of pawpaw scattered throughout the US. It grows rampant in 25 states in the East, ranging from northern Florida to southern Maine, growing as far west as eastern Nebraska. The pawpaw is a tropical fruit that is found almost exclusively in the wild, but there are also a small number of commercial orchards that sell cultivated varieties. My main pawpaw connect is a guy with a pawpaw orchard in an undisclosed location.
The majority of species I find in the forest are a variety known as the Shenandoah, but the orchard that I work with in Maryland has the Allegheny, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania Gold, Susquehanna, Potomac, and Wabash varietals.
When the pawpaw ripens, the skin begins to bruise and has black spots all over, but it’s perfectly normal. It looks funky, but that’s a good thing.
Flavor wise, it tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana with a vanilla, custard-like texture. The Shenandoah has the firmest texture, which can be used for picking and slicing. Other varieties are more custard-like, and can be used to make ice cream or some sort of dessert.
Without cutting into it, pawpaw doesn’t smell like much. Once you’ve opened it up, the scents that waft into your personal zone depend on the variety you’ve got on hand. A Shenandoah pawpaw smells like fresh, yeasty bread, while a Pennsylvania Gold drops a stink bomb like a bad fart. The scents can range from flatulent-like sulfuric notes to instant creamed corn, onion, and ripened bananas. I ate a Shenandoah pawpaw today and my entire delivery van smelled like garbage, which is OK because durian fruit smells exactly the same, and everyone loves durian fruit, so whatever.
What to Do with a Batch of It
You should cut it in half and eat it with a spoon. A grapefruit spoon is ideal so you can pry off the pulp from the seed without wasting any of the meat. Eat it by itself, bake a pawpaw pie (with a meringue topping, like banana cream pie), whip up a frozen sorbet, or create some sort of custard or pudding with the purée.
They’re really difficult to find, and there’s not a whole lot of people who know about them. I don’t understand why no one has sold them on a commercially sized scale, because they’re not very difficult to grow. One in four chefs hates them, but this September I moved 1,300 pounds of pawpaw over the span of a two-week season. So maybe I’ve gotten enough of them hooked on the product to change some opinions around here.
The Deal Breaker
The skin and seeds are inedible. If you eat them, they will give you intestinal issues pretty quickly. The guy I source my pawpaws from told me that when you ingest the seeds or the skin, you get what’s known as “scratchy asshole syndrome.” I guess your butt gets super-irritable and itchy, like irritable bowel syndrome, or symptoms close to hemorrhoids. I don’t know. I’ve never swallowed a seed before, but I’d advise against tempting fate and avoid eating them altogether. And don’t try consuming unripened pawpaw fruit, because it will have the same effect. I tried telling one of my clients—a chef who is really obsessed with pickling unripened pawpaw—about this, and he didn’t want to listen. I’m pretty sure that his diners have been shitting themselves for the past three weeks with the pawpaw special that’s currently running on his menu.
More about food in fancy restaurants: