Cucurbit Biodiversity I: Cucumbers, Melons, and Gourds
‘Cucurbits’ refer to plants within the Cucurbitaceae, a family of 960 tropical and subtropical species, most of which are annual vines. Across the globe human civilizations have independently domesticated various species within this group, which now makes up one of the most diverse crop and garden plant assemblages. For this entry, we’ll focus on four species domesticated in Africa and southern Eurasia: cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), melons (Cucumis melo), watermelons (Citrullus lanatus), and bottle gourds (Lagenaria sicereria) as well as a few other closely related species.
Cucumbers were initially domesticated at least 5000 years ago in the Himalayan foothills of northern India and Nepal, where it was spread through trade east into China and west across Turkey into Greece and Rome, and then across Europe. It and melons were such common crops in Sumerian city-states along the Euphrates River around 3500 years ago that they are even mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
A diverse suite of names have been applied to cucumbers. In ancient Greece, it was called angoúri, which means ‘unripe’. This is understandable given that cucumbers are harvested when the fruits are immature. The Greek name spread across central, eastern, and northern Europe, giving rise to the Russian ‘ogurec’, Hungarian ‘uborka’, Lithuanian ‘agurkas’, German ‘gurke’, and Swedish ‘gurka’. From this stems ‘gherkin’, the word we currently use for small, usually pickled cucumbers. The Romans, however, called this crop ‘cucumerem’, giving rise to the Romanian ‘castravete’, Croatian ‘krastavac’, Italian cocomero, Spanish cohombro, and Old French ‘cocombre’. From this evolved the English ‘cucumber’.
The two main strains are the larger ‘slicing’ cucumbers which have been bred for fresh eating, and ‘pickling’ cucumbers which are shorter in length and more uniform in width. ‘Armenian’ and ‘snake’ cucumbers, however, are immature melons.
Melons were domesticated at a very early date from wild ancestors found in tropical savannas ranging from western Africa to southeast Asia, and it is possible that it was independently domesticated in both Africa and Asia. It was grown over 5000 years ago in both China and Persia, and by 4000 years ago was cultivated in Greece and Egypt.
The word ‘melon’ is derived from the ancient Greek ‘mēlopepōn’ from ‘mēlon’ (apple) and ‘pepōn’ (ripe). This alludes to the fact that unlike cucumbers, melons are harvested after ripening. This word evolved into the Latin ‘melopeponem’, and then into the Old French ‘melon’.
Six major groups of melons have been domesticated:
Cantaloupes (named after Cantalupo, the former papal country residence near Rome), muskmelons, and Persian melons belong to the Cantalupensis Group. Their fruits are oval or round, smooth or broadly scalloped, with a skin ranging from netted through smooth. They slip off their stem when mature. Their flesh is aromatic, and is salmon/orange or green colored.
Crenshaw and honeydew melons belong to the Inodorus Group. Their fruits are round or irregular, smooth or wrinkled, with smooth skin. They do not slip from their stalks when mature. Their flesh is not aromatic and is generally green to white colored.
Snake melons, Armenian ‘cucumbers’ and the Italian carosello are in the Flexuosus Group. Their fruits are long, thin, ribbed, often curled, and look much like a cucumber. Like cucumbers these tend to be harvested and eaten when immature.
Oriental picking melons make up the Conomon Group. Their fruits are smooth, cylindrical, and may be green, white, or striped. They have a sweet to bland taste with white flesh.
Queen Anne’s and Pocket melons, mango melons, and pomegranate melons belong to the Dudaim Group. Their fruits are small, round to oval, with a smooth skin that is light green, yellow, or striped. While their flesh is rather hard and insipid, they are grown for their very aromatic smell.
Phoot and snap melons of India make up the Mormordica Group. Their fruits are oval or cylindrical with a smooth skin that cracks open as the fruit matures. They have a bland flesh and tend to be used in the same way as cucumbers.
Watermelons were domesticated from wild plants in sub-Saharan tropical savannas, and in the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt they were so important a crop that their seeds are found in burial tombs. The crop was traded east into China, where it was in cultivation 1000 years ago, and was introduced by the Moors into Europe during the 13th Century. It was subsequently moved to the New World by Spanish explorers, where it became an important crop for the indigenous peoples of the desert southwest, and by African slaves who introduced this crop to the plantations of the south.
There are three principle forms of this crop. Besides the typical watermelon with its red to pink to orange to yellow sweet, juicy flesh, there is also the ‘citron’, which has hard, white flesh that is not eaten raw. Rather, it is made into pies, pickled (it was the progenitor of watermelon rind pickle), and is used to make preserves where its high pectin content helps to solidify jellies and jams. Lastly, the seeds of wild watermelon (as well as other cucurbits) are called ‘egusi’ and are an important oil and protein-rich staple across tropical Africa.
The bottle gourd is perhaps the first plant domesticated by humans, being selected during the end of the last Ice Age from wild plants living in dry tropical savannas in southern Africa. The principle impetus for domestication was not for food, but rather as containers allowing storage and movement of water. Because of its utility, this plant rapidly spread across the cultures of Eurasia, and was brought to North America by 10,000 years ago via migrants crossing the Bering Land Bridge.
Food uses of this plant perhaps began with consumption of its oil and protein-rich seeds; currently in Central America a version of the drink horchata is made from the roasted and ground seeds. The shoots, tendrils, and leaves are also consumed as a green vegetable. But, even more importantly, the tender immature fruits are also edible. In India, young bottle gourd fruits are used in curries, dals, and chutneys; in China it is used in stir fries and soups; in Japan marinated, re-hydrated gourd strips (called ‘kanpyō’) are commonly used in rolled sushi. They were also commonly used in the pre-Columbian European diet.
The name ‘gourd’ springs from the Old French ‘coorde’, which was derived from the Latin ‘cucurbita’. This root evolved into the Italian ‘zucca’, with the young fruit being called ‘zucchini’. In Spain, this vegetable was been known as ‘calabaza’, which is possibly derived from the Arabic ‘qar'a yabisa’ and Persian ‘kharabuz’ for ‘dry gourd’.
Other cultivated edible African / Eurasian Cucurbits
A number of other species in the family have been domesticated, but remain rather minor crops as compared to the four discussed above. These include Winter Gourd (Benincasa hispida) of southeast Asia, Horned Melon (Cucumis metuliferus) of Africa, and Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) of India and southeast Asia. Of these the latter is of the highest dietary importance, being a commonly used in Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese cooking where its immature fruits are used to impart what is seen as a pleasant bitterness to dishes. The general avoidance of bitter-tasting foods by western Eurasian cultures (bitter greens notwithstanding) has prevented this crop from being commonly grown in the region.
Bread and Butter Pickles
Perhaps the second most iconic pickle that we grew up with in the Midwest was the Bread and Butter Pickle, which is a sweet-sour spiced pickle that is the prefect accompaniment to burgers or hot dogs. Unlike the other recipes presented here, these are not fermented to make them sour. Rather, fresh cucumber slices are tossed with salt to extract water, rinsed, and then packed in a sugar-vinegar syrup. You need to let the mixture rest for about a month to allow the initial harshness of the syrup to dissipate, however.
The following recipe is another that was almost lost. As related by Jeanne Lesem in her 1992 Preserving in Today's Kitchen (ISBN 978-0805048810), the original recipe was found hand-written (without measurements) on a blank page in Lena Wolf’s (Jeanne's Aunt Onie's) copy of the 1921 Good Things to Eat published by the members of the Chancel Chapter of the Grace Cathedral in Topeka, Kansas. We think this is one of the very best bread and butter pickles that we’ve ever made.
6-8 pounds of small cucumbers, cut into ¼ inch slices using a wavy potato slicer
1 pound onion, cut into quarters and thinly sliced
1/3 cup pickling salt
cold water to cover
4 cups sugar
4 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seed
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
Layer the cucumber and onion slices with salt in a nonreactive bowl. Cover with water and refrigerate at least 5 hours, or overnight.
Drain the cucumbers and onions. Rinse and drain again. Repeat one last time, and let drain in a colander while you make the syrup.
Place sugar, vinegar, and spices in a saucepan and heat to just boiling, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to keep the syrup at a low simmer.
Pack the cucumber and onion slices tightly into pint or quart jars, leaving 1 inch of head space. Cover the slices with the hot syrup, making sure there is at least ½” covering the top of the cucumber and onion slices. Partition the whole spices equally between your jars. Process in a hot water bath for 20 minutes to seal. Remove from heat and let sit a month before opening.
One of the iconic foods of the Jewish Deli is the dill pickle, fermented in a brine solution and flavored with a few pungent herbs and spices. There are almost as many recipes for these as there are grandmothers, because this type of pickle is characteristic of cuisines ranging across central Europe to the steppes of Asia. Certainly there are innumerable versions of ‘crock pickles’ found throughout the many different immigrant communities that Jeff grew up with in eastern Iowa. Below we present our version of this iconic food, inspired by two different recipes presented in Lucy Norris’ 2003 wonderful cookbook and oral history project: Pickled (ISBN 978-1584793007). One of the inspiring recipes comes from central Russia, and was shared by Yelena and Vladimir Groysman, while the other came from Jose Torres Jr. & Marvin Weishaus of the United Pickle Company in the Bronx.
6 pounds cucumbers. If only larger cucumbers are available cut each into 6 spears.
1-2 sprigs of fresh dill
10 black peppercorns
6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
2” piece of fresh horseradish, peeled and cut into ¼” strips
6-8 black currant leaves
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup water
½ cup salt
½ teaspoon pickling lime
Place cucumbers, dill, peppercorns, garlic, horseradish and currant leaves in a 1 gallon crock. Make brine by dissolving the salt and pickling lime into the vinegar and water. Cover the cucumbers with the brine. Place a small plate over the top, weighed down with a small sealed, watertight bag filled with clean pebbles to keep all of the vegetable material completely submersed. Let ferment in a warm place (70-85° F) for 5-9 days until the cucumbers change in color to a light brownish-green and they reach the desired level of sourness. If the brine level falls and exposes any of the cucumbers or other plant material, top off with fresh water.
Drain off the brine and reserve. Pack the cucumbers tightly into canning jars, dividing the dill, garlic, horseradish, currant leaves and peppercorns equally between all your jars. Top off with the reserved brine and process in a hot water bath for 20 minutes to seal. Let rest another week or two before eating.
Linda’s Sweet Pickles
This is Linda’s favorite pickle recipe, obtained long ago from a now forgotten source in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The recipe itself, written on a recipe card, has been spilled on so many times and the ink has faded to the point that we could hardly make out the directions, which turned out to also be in a short-hand that only Linda could decipher.
But we did figure it out, and in the end were able to recreate this cherished condiment. We hope that you enjoy this recipe that came within an eyelash of extinction.
Note that these are best made with tiny, pinky-finger sized cucumbers. Since we live in the city and did not have space this year in our small garden for cucumbers, we were limited to what we could buy in the local markets. It took us almost a month to find a case of 6” pickling cucumbers, and there was no way to get the tiny cukes that this recipe really wants. So we improvised by chunking the larger picking cucumbers into pieces of approximately the same volume as a tiny cuke.
6 pounds of pickling cucumbers (or gherkins or cornichons)
1½ cups pickling salt
1 gallon water
If using pickling cucumbers, cut into 1-2 inch chunks. If using gherkins or cornichons leave whole.
Make the brine by completely dissolving the salt into the water. Pack cucumbers into a 1 gallon crock. Cover with the brine. You will almost certainly have more brine than needed to cover the cucumbers; put any extra into a quart jar. Put a small plate over the top if the cucumbers and weight down with a small ziploc bag filled with clean pebbles to keep the cucumbers completely immersed in the brine. Tie off the top of the crock with a plastic bag to keep out debris and insects and let ferment for 9 days in a warm place (70-85° F).
Check each day and if the brine level falls and exposes the top cucumbers, add in enough reserved brine to keep them all submerged.
1 teaspoon alum
1 gallon water
On Day 9, drain the brine from the cucumber chunks and clean the crock. Return the cucumber chunks to the crock. Dissolve alum in water and pour over the top of the pickles. Again you will likely have more alum solution that you'll need. Place the small plate and bag of clean pebbles over the top and let soak for two days.
2 cups white wine vinegar
2 cups sugar
¼ teaspoon clove oil
¼ teaspoon cinnamon leaf oil
1 red bell pepper cut into ½” x 3” strips
Drain alum solution from the cucumbers on Day 11. Make syrup by dissolving sugar into the vinegar and bringing it just to a boil. Remove from heat and add in the clove and cinnamon oil. Pack jars tightly with the cucumber pieces and add in one or two bell pepper strips per pint (3-4 per quart). Cover the cucumbers with the syrup. Process in a hot water bath for 20 minutes to seal jars. Let rest for at least a month before eating.
This is another recipe inspired by one presented in Lucy Norris’ 2003 Pickled (ISBN 978-1584793007). This beautiful and invaluable book originated from a oral history project on the history of pickles that Ms. Norris undertook during her college years at New York University. It really is our favorite cookbook on the subject, and we can’t recommend enough that you track down your own copy.
The original Cajun Pickle recipe was shared by Eddie & LeeAnn Jacobian, owner/operators of The Pickle People in West Hempstead, Long Island. Because the recipe uses spice mixes, we’ve also provided our favorite DIY versions. The Pickling Spice mix comes from the incomparable 1979 Better Than Store Bought by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie (ISBN 978-0060146931). The Cajun Seasoning comes from the 1987 Prudhomme Family Cookbook (ISBN 978-0688075491). The Italian Seasoning mix is of our own creation.
6 pounds pickling cucumbers; if only 4-6” cucumbers are available cut each into 6 spears.
6 mildly-hot Hungarian wax peppers, quartered
1 garlic head, cloves peeled and halved
½ cup onion, sliced into ¼ x 3” strips
1 gallon water
¼ cup white wine vinegar
1 cup pickling salt
1½ tablespoons picking spice (see below)
1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning (see below)
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning (see below)
½ tablespoon cayenne pepper
½ tablespoon ground cumin
½ tablespoon black peppercorns
Pack cucumbers, wax peppers, garlic, and onion into a 1 gallon crock. Make the brine by mixing together the water, vinegar, salt, pickling spice, Cajun seasoning, Italian seasoning, cayenne, cumin, and black peppercorns. Stir until the salt has dissolved, and pour over the cucumbers. You will almost certainly have more brine than needed to cover the cucumbers; put any extra into a quart jar. Put a small plate over the top if the cucumbers and weight down with a small ziploc bag filled with clean pebbles to keep the cucumbers completely immersed in the brine. Tie off the top of the crock with a plastic bag to keep out debris and insects and let ferment for 5-9 days in a warm place (70-85° F) until the cucumbers reach the desired level of sourness. Check each day and if the brine level falls and exposes the top cucumbers, add in enough reserved brine to keep them all submerged.
Drain off the brine and reserve. Pack the cucumbers tightly into canning jars, dividing the peppers, garlic, onion and peppercorns equally between all your jars. Top off with the reserved brine and process in a hot water bath for 20 minutes to seal. Let rest another week or two before eating.
4 cinnamon sticks (each about 3” long), crumbled
1” dried ginger, pounded into small pieces
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole allspice berries
2 teaspoons whole cloves
2 teaspoons dill seed
2 teaspoons coriander seed
2 teaspoons whole mace, crumbled
8 bay leaves, crumbled
1 dry hot red pepper (2” long), crumbled (with seeds)
Mix together and store in an airtight jar.
3 tablespoons salt
1½ tablespoons sweet papyrika
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
½ tablespoon freshly ground white pepper
½ tablespoon dry thyme leaf
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Mix together and store in an airtight jar
Mix together equal parts of dry basil, marjoram, oregano, parsley, and rosemary leaf. Crumble and store in an airtight jar.
Sesame Salt Pickles
Not all pickles are sour. For instance, there are a large number of Asian pickles that are simply thinly sliced vegetables tossed with salt and allowed to sit for a while to pull out water, with the brine being later drained and the vegetables being tossed with a dressing.
In this simple recipe, adapted from one presented in Lucy Norris’ 2003 Pickled(ISBN 978-1584793007), salted cucumber slices are dressed in a sesame/garlic dressing to make a fresh condiment that is perfect when served with spicy Szechwan fare. The original recipe was shared by Jacqueline Newman editor of Flavor & Fortune, a Chinese food magazine published by the Institute for the Advancement of Science and Art of Chinese Cuisine.
1 English cucumber (about 1 pound) cut in half lengthwise and very thinly (~1/16”) sliced
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste mixed with 2 tablespoons of iced black tea
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
5-8 Szechwan peppercorns, roasted and crushed
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
½ teaspoon hot sesame oil
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
Make dressing by mixing together the sesame/iced tea paste, salt, sesame seeds, Szechuan peppercorns, garlic, dark sesame and hot sesame oils. Toss with the cucumber slices, cover and refigerate for 2 hours. Drain for 5 minutes to remove any accumulated liquid released by the cucumbers. You'll also lose some dressing but don't worry, that's fine. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the cilantro. Serve immediately.