Cucumis sativus, more commonly known as cucumber, is a member of the gourd (cucurbitaceae) family, which also includes gourds, melons and squashes. Another name for cucumbers is gherkins, which actually alludes to cucumbers in their pickled form. Currently, it is the world’s fourth most commonly cultivated crop, after onions, tomatoes and cabbage. Even though we tend to think of cucumbers as vegetables, they are actually a fruit by definition. Fruits are produced by development of the ovary in the flowering plant.
Cucumbers can be divided into two main categories, those being pickled and those to be sold for eating raw. The pickling cucumbers are generally petite with thick, spiny dotted skins. Eating cucumbers tend to have smooth skin and are larger in size, with some varieties extending to over two feet long. While most people are accustomed to seeing green cucumbers, they actually exist in a wide array of colours and sizes. Cucumbers can be white, yellow, and even orange in colour.
The best known varieties of cucumbers existing today are a result of hybridisation carried out in the 1800s. Like all other members of this family, cucumbers are easy to grow and adapt to every growing zone with ease. They can be cultivated effortlessly on any upright supporting framework in the tiniest of gardens. The creeping vine grows up the frame and grabs them with skinny, spiralling tendrils. The large leaves hide the fruit under its canopy.
Cucumbers are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which make it a beneficial anti- inflammatory and antioxidant source. Since cucumbers are nearly 96% water, they are a great food for rehydrating in the long hot summers. Moreover, in some parts of the world they are sliced and sold on the streets and enjoyed fresh on sunny afternoons. The phrase “cool as a cucumber” is a reference to the cooling properties of the vegetable. The phrase was first documented to have been used in a poem entitled “A New Song” by the English poet John Gay in 1732.
Believed to be native to the foothills of the Himalayas, in an area that is now a part of India; cucumbers have been grown for around 4,000 years. Their use eventually spread into the Mediterranean and they were especially admired by the Romans, who eventually introduced them to Europe. The Roman Emperor, Tiberius, loved them so much that they were cultivated in greenhouses so that he could eat them all year round. Julius Caesar, another fan of cucumbers, enjoyed them most when pickled. Even Cleopatra accredited some of her beauty to cucumbers. Medicinally, they were used by the Romans to treat bad eyesight, scorpion bites, and to scare mice. Women wishing to bear children wore them on their waists.
The Spanish were responsible for taking them to the New World. Native-Americans started cultivation of cucumbers along with pumpkin and squash. Cucumbers gained such significance that they are even referred to twice in the Bible, in Numbers 11:5 and again in Isaiah 1:8. It is believed that the pickling of cucumbers started in the Tigris Valley around 3,000 years ago. Earliest forms of pickles were prepared by placing them in brine, later modifications were made and new spices added to create new versions.
In the 1600s, lots of people in England did not appreciate uncooked or fresh produce. This was due to the mindset that such vegetables were about as good as animal feed. As a result, cucumbers gained the unflattering nickname “cowcumber”. Later, even as fresh vegetables started to become more popular, cucumbers remained ostracised for some time.
The flavour of cucumbers varies according to the sensitivity of one’s taste buds. While the vast majority of people claim a watery like taste, or even a light melon-like flavour, a small minority say they have a very abhorrent taste. Sometimes, a few of the cucumbers growing on a plant can have a bitter taste, which is attributed to the chemical cucurbitacin. Cucurbitacin is generally poisonous to livestock, especially sheep.
Health Benefits of the Cucumber
Cucumbers are thought to be the perfect diet food because they have nominal calories and fat, and are loaded with nutrients. They are also used in beauty products like lotions, soaps, and facial masks. The ascorbic acid and caffeic acid found in cucumbers is responsible for lowering water retention which helps to reduce swelling and puffiness under the eyes. Cucumber skin provides relief to sun and wind burned skin.
Regular consumption of cucumbers is useful for aiding digestion. The dietary fibre along with high water content found in cucumbers is said to be responsible for eliminating toxins from the body, and also help with digestive disorders like gastritis, heartburn, ulcers, and even chronic constipation. The presence of silica helps to strengthen the connective tissues like tendons, cartilage and ligaments, and ease joint pain. Silica is also responsible for healthy nails. The photo-chemicals in cucumbers are good for eliminating bad breath. Simply place a slice of cucumber in the mouth for approximately thirty seconds, and then eat normally.
A combination of cucumber and carrot juice is accredited with lowering uric acid and helping to relieve gout and arthritis pain. Cucumbers also contain the hormone required by the pancreas to produce insulin, thus helping people suffering from diabetes, while the sterols in it help to lower cholesterol levels. The presence of potassium and magnesium in cucumbers help to regulate blood pressure, while the silicon and sulphur encourage hair growth. Just a 100 gram serving of cucumbers provides 150mg of potassium, which also helps to regulate metabolic rates and build muscle tissue. Potassium also enhances overall muscle flexibility.
The three lignans found in cucumbers are associated with reducing the risk of prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers. Due to the alkaline nature of cucumbers, drinking its juice is good for treatment of acidity and is good at calming gastric ulcers.
The whole cucumber is editable. The flesh contains vitamins A, C, and folic acid, and the skin provides fibre, and minerals like magnesium, molybdenum, and potassium. Additionally, the trace element silica, ascorbic, and caffeic acids, is also found in it. Other nutrients include vitamins B1,B2, B3, B5, andB6, in addition to calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc. The relatively high content of vitamin K in cucumbers is good for promoting bone mass.
The three different types of phytonutrients in cucumbers that are responsible for the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer activities, are Flavonoids, Lignans, and Triterpenes. In addition, this mix behaves as scavengers against the free radicals found in the body, which play a role in the aging process.
How to Use Cucumber
Cucumbers can be consumed raw, as additions to salads, or in a pickled form. Additionally they can be enjoyed as relishes, sauces in dressings, or as dill pickle. There are even a few ways to enjoy cucumbers by cooking them.
One particularly cool, creamy, and low-fat way of enjoying cucumbers, is to prepare them as a classic Indian side dish known as raita. This sauce goes well with lamb, sausage, rice, chicken, chops, and even fish. It may even be used as a dip for vegetables or with chips, and as a substitute for mayonnaise in a sandwich. Raita’s creamy coolness offers a harmonious equilibrium with spicy foods.
- 250 grams of plain yoghurt
- 1 Medium peeled cucumber, seeded, and finely chopped
- 10 mint leaves (approximately), also finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon of cumin seeds
- Salt and black pepper to taste
Place the yoghurt in a deep dish and mix well so that it's creamy smooth. Add remaining ingredients, mix well and serve.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to making raita. To make is spicier, a finely chopped green chilly can be added. To make the raita runnier, just add a couple of tablespoons of milk. To further enhance its flavour, add a one or two finely chopped cloves of garlic.
Juicing cucumbers with skin, seeds, and flesh is a great way to get all the benefits from the many nutrients they have to offer. Cucumber’s taste is so mild that it can be easily mixed with any other vegetable or fruit. Personally, I have found that cucumber juice can help mask the stronger flavours of other ingredients in the juice. Since cucumbers are mostly water, they yield a lot of juice. Just remember to wash it thoroughly before putting it in the juicer.
Cool Cucumber Concoction
- 1 large cucumber
- ½ peeled lemon
- 2 carrots
- 1 medium apple
Run all ingredients through a juicer and pour in a tall glass over ice.
Cucumbers have not been employed in too many studies or clinical trials. Most of the nutritional benefits of cucumbers are based on the detailed analysis of the nutrients found in them, and the studies of the health benefits that these individual nutrients provide. One particular study carried out in 2011 entitled “Clinical Sciences: Colours of Fruit and Vegetables and 10-Year Incidence of Stroke,” did use cucumbers. In this study, fruits and vegetables were classified into separate groups based on the colour of their edible flesh. The vegetable colour reflects the quantity of advantageous phytochemicals like flavonoids and carotenoids present within them. Cucumbers fell into the white category along with apples and pears. The study found that orange/yellow, red/purple, and green fruits and vegetables, had no relation to incidence of strokes, while the frequency of strokes was 52% lower in people who consumed larger amounts of white fruits and vegetables.