Four thousand years ago in many varietals of the plant, allowing the oases of Mesopotamia, water-filled gardens were built to grow and celebrate the hanging tendrils of the cucurbit family – and in particular the short, squat, juicy cucumbers. They were hairy and prickly, but the inner flesh was soft, quenched the thirst, and was perfect to balance the salty, fatty diets of the ancient cultures.
It was the Japanese who cultivated the cucumber into the smooth, silky textured varieties we all know today. However, there doesn’t seem to be a country in the world that doesn’t have a cucumber salad in their food culture. It’s the second-most important cucurbit in the world, coming in after its close relation the watermelon.
Did You Know?
The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is a member of the cucurbitaceae family, and is closely related to all melons, gourds, squash, zucchini and pumpkins. This is obvious, as they all feature similar leaves and flowering patterns. There are more than 100 different types of cucumbers grown, including smaller Asian types; thin- skinned European versions; thick, elongated African versions; waxy, thick-skinned American cucumbers; and pickling cucumbers – used for gherkins, cornichons and the large pickles we find in burgers today.
The crisp, moist cucumber is composed of 96 per cent water. They also contain magnesium and potassium, which are very useful in retaining hydration. The flesh of the cucumber contains bitter alkaloids called cucurbitacin. The distinctive melon-like smell comes from the aldehydes, which break long-chain fatty acids in human digestion.
The cucurbitacin compound is responsible for the ‘burpy’ feeling one feels after eating a cucumber. This compound has been reduced in many varietals of the plant, allowing us to have ‘burpless’ cucumbers. The less water the fruit has, the stronger the alkaloids are- they are always present in the growing ends, stem ends and skin of the fruit.
Classified as one of the world’s healthiest foods, cucumbers are low in kilojoules, completely free of fat, and contain potassium, magnesium, manganese and vitamins such as A and C. They are also quite high in phytonutrients, which are beneficial as antioxidants and have great anti- inflammatory properties. This is why cucumber slices are used in beauty regimes to reduce puffiness in skin.
The larger a cucumber grows, the lower its acidity and the higher its sugar content. The power of the cucumber has been examined in recent years, as the World Health Organisation looks at our gut health and its relation to our brain health.
How To Grow
Traditionally, cucumbers are grown rambling over a sturdy trellis, which provides support to the developing fruit. They need more sunshine, humidity and warmth than the average tomato. They’re best planted in temperate areas from November onwards. However, they also grow well in greenhouse conditions, and these varieties are available all year round.
How To Choose
The average cucumber fruit should be available without plastic packaging, but some hothouse-grown cucumbers – which are available throughout the year – will be supplied in a thin layer of plastic to prevent the skin from dehydrating in stored conditions.
A good cucumber is firm, well formed and deep green – not soft, gnarled or bruised. Glossy skin will naturally indicate a better cucumber.
How To Store
Any cucumber is best eaten quickly, as the longer they are kept, the more the bitter flavours develop. Instead of keeping cucumbers in plastic layers, try keeping them in a jug of cold water with the stalk end down. They will dehydrate and rot quickly in the fridge, and they also don’t like warm room temperature. If sliced or diced, place into iced water and use as soon as possible.
How To Use
Thin-skinned cucumbers generally do not need to be peeled. Waxy cucumbers and home-grown do. Always rinse cucumbers as their skin can contain harmful microbes. Slice away the ends and stems to reduce the bitterness. You can also use a fork to pierce the skin and rub away any residual bitterness.