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Playing it cool with the cucumber

  • Poking out of a sandwich, chopped in a salad or as a cure for puffy eyes, the cucumber has travelled across geographies
  • To make a case for the cucumber one has to acknowledge its health and beauty benefits as well as its role as a summer panacea

May is often the cruelest month across India, with the heat roiling through towns, cities and villages, sending the most resilient folk indoors in search of a magic panacea. That panacea often takes the shape of the simple cucumber. Sliced, salted, pickled or juiced, the cucumber (Cucumis sativus) comes into its own during summer, transforming from a secondary salad staple into a hero ingredient.

As a school-going child, my memories of a Kolkata summer are invariably twinned with skinny cucumbers. Lunch dabbas and mid-morning snacks on vacations comprised glistening cucumbers doused with rock salt and a slight squeeze of lime. In Kolkata, the British Raj infused all traditions and evenings would be ushered in with tea and tiny diamond-shaped sandwiches with translucent cucumber slices sitting on generous lashings of butter.

As a college student in Delhi reeling in the soul-sapping summer afternoons, nothing would be quite as welcome as the sight of a street-side cucumber cart parked under a lush amaltas tree. Piled high with cucumbers and kakdis, this tiny little oasis of cooling green would offer momentary respite as the vendors would deftly dispense chopped sticks doused in chaat masala in days-old newspaper pages to a long line of hot and bothered city folk.

Indigenous to India, the wild cucumber flourished across the subcontinent. Although it is botanically classified as a fruit, it is often perceived as a vegetable. Numerous varieties exist both in India and across the world. Cucumbers are usually categorized according to pickling and slicing variants.

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The slicing varieties are usually long, with a glossy dark green and thicker skin, while the pickling versions are smaller in size, like tiny gherkins and the short and bumpy Kirbys. Despite resembling the cucumber in appearance and flavour, some are actually part of the melon family, like the long slender, light green kakdis or Armenian cucumbers. Others, like the oval yellow and green striped Madras cucumber, are far closer to the pumpkin. Then there are seedless variants like the thin English cucumbers.

To make a case for the humble cucumber, one has to acknowledge both its health and beauty benefits. With 96% water content, the fruit is a hydrating agent. It is high on nutrients and low on carbs, maintains digestive health and is a rich source of vitamins K and C as well as magnesium, potassium and manganese.

It is believed that the earliest known use of this fruit for beauty purposes dates back to the reign of queen Cleopatra. Among the first written accounts of the cucumber’s beautifying and healing properties is a 19th century manual of herbal remedies called Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. In it, physician Nicholas Culpeper writes: “Take the cucumbers and bruise them well and distil the water from them, and let such as are troubled with ulcers in the bladder drink no other drink. The face being washed with the same water cureth the reddest face that is; it is also excellent good for sun-burning, freckles, and morphew (skin blemishes)." These anti-inflammatory, skin-brightening properties continue to hold true, with the cucumber remaining a core ingredient across a range of beauty products as well as the eternal home remedy for everything from puffy eyes to chlorine-damaged hair.

The Indian cucumber travelled to other parts of the world. Both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia had knowledge of this fruit, as did the later Greeks and the Romans. Easy to grow, the cucumber was cultivated widely across Europe, Persia and the Middle East through the medieval period. Vitamin C-laden pickled cucumbers travelled to the New World on Columbus’ ships to keep the crew scurvy-free. The only slide in its popularity was in 17th-18th century England, where a mispronunciation of the name as “cowcumber" gave rise to the perception that it wasn’t fit for human consumption and only suited to cows. The threat of plague and the taboo on eating raw vegetables added fuel to the cucumber’s potentially life-threatening properties. By the turn of the 20th century, however, it was once again hailed as a a superfood.

The tradition of pickling cucumbers dates back to the third century BC. Over time the smaller cucumbers became the favoured varietal for pickles. Favoured by Jewish immigrants to the US, cucumber and dill formed the perfect melange and became integral to pastrami sandwiches and hot dogs across the US.

From chilled soups and palate-cleansing sorbets to an accompaniment in salads, cheese and meat platters, the cucumber adds depth by way of both texture and delicacy of flavour. In India, recipes in generational kitchens advocated the use of cucumbers in summer. It is used in conjunction with other vegetables, as in a kachumbar salad (chopped cucumber, tomato and onion) or combined with yogurt and spices in a cucumber raita. Other regional specialities, like Andhra-style chana dal, a Maharashtrian thalipeeth (pancakes) or a coconut curry from Kerala, are summer-ready with the addition of cucumber.

Today, chefs across the country use cucumbers both as a pickle or as a refreshing element to offset a chicken or seafood dish. “We pickle gherkins and use them chopped in our caper and pelati tomato tartare, which we serve with our crispy seasonal fish. We also use these pickles in our salad with textures of prawn," says Anuroopa Banerjee Gupta, consulting chef at the Latin American-inspired Oi- Kitchen and Bar in Mumbai. For Paul Kinny, culinary director, The St Regis, Mumbai, the cucumber is a versatile ingredient used across salads, dips and other cold dishes. “Two ways in which we use it as a hero ingredient is as sushi and as a carpaccio appetizer," he says.

The cucumber is a big favourite in the cocktail world and G&Ts with cucumber swirls and cucumber martinis are trending summer drinks across the globe. Rahul Raghav, who is the bar manager at Mumbai-based restaurants The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, uses cucumber in his summer cocktail menus. “The cucumber juice needs to be fresh as it becomes bitter if kept too long. At The Bombay Canteen, we use it in our Cucumber Lite G&T, where we mix gin with fresh cucumber juice, a rose lime cordial and tonic," he says. He also uses fermented cucumber water in other drinks.

Today, the fruit is ubiquitous around the world, and from dainty cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches at Buckingham Palace to spiced cucumber sticks at street-side stalls in India, the cucumber has been appropriated and accepted across geographies and demographics.

A case for the gourds

The Indian summer menu features an assortment of gourds. While their high water content and neutral flavours makes them difficult to cook, regional Indian cuisines have managed to transform these everyday vegetables into delicacies.

Bottle gourd (lau/lauki)

Cooking the bottle gourd remains a challenge and it takes a fair bit to prevent it from becoming a bowl of watery mush. In West Bengal, this dish gets a makeover with the simple addition of textural elements. While the vegetarian version of the dish adds bori, or lentil cakes, for some crunch, the non-vegetarian classic, lau chingri, combines cubes of the gourd with deep-fried shrimp.

Indian round gourd (tinda)

A staple across north India, the tinda is best eaten when it retains its shape. The Punjabi classic shahi tinda is a dry preparation where the tops are cut off and the insides scooped out. These shells are stuffed with a mash of paneer and spices and sautéed.

Bitter gourd (karela/pavakkai)

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The complex flavour profile of the bitter gourd requires deft handling to bring out its best. Most preparations of this vegetable across the country focus on balancing out the bitterness. The Kerala-style pavakkai fry is a simple and delicious recipe that combines slices of the bitter gourd with onions, spices, chopped coconut and curry leaves. The whole mix is deep fried in coconut oil till crisp.

Ridge gourd (turai/dodka)

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The treatment this gourd gets in Maharashtrian kitchens minimizes wastage. Its peels are combined with roasted sesame seeds, red chilli powder, sugar and salt and cooked into a dry spicy chutney (thecha). The rest of the vegetable is cooked with roasted peanuts, jaggery, tamarind, grated coconut and goda masala (a Maharashtrian spice mix).

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