Cucumber forever

56-Mangaluru-southekayi-curry Coastal comfort: Mangaluru southekayi curry | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

KARNATAKA / Mangaluru southekayi

A PIPING HOT, spicy sambar poured on a mound of rice is simply irresistible, especially if the curry contains Mangaluru southekayi (Malabar or Madras cucumber). If you spot bright yellow-and-green striped ‘rugby balls’ hanging from the ceiling of a traditional kitchen in a coastal Karnataka home, you can be sure it is the Mangaluru southekayi, a common backyard vegetable. After all, it is a vegetable for all seasons, as it has a long shelf life of eight to 10 months after harvest. The chances are, you will also spot them in a mall, a neighbourhood ‘Mangalore Stores’ or a terrace garden in far-off Bengaluru. But the best place to discover this cucumber is on a plantain leaf, as no vegetarian fare on the coast is complete without a southekayi huli (sambar) and southekayi majjigehuli (yoghurt-based curry).

The origin of this cucumber is debatable as locals argue that it is a heritage vegetable that predates the arrival of the british.

The origin of this cucumber is debatable as locals argue that it is a heritage vegetable which predates the arrival of the British. Hortus Kewensis—a catalogue of the plants cultivated in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew by English horticulturist William Aiton—notes that the Scottish botanist and father of Indian botany, William Roxburgh, introduced the Mangaluru cucumber to India’s east coast in 1805.

Interestingly, the Mangaluru southekayi, has become a bounce-back crop for farmers of central Karnataka hit by frequent droughts. The vine grown in adequate sunlight produces yellow flowers, and is ready for harvest in 55 to 60 days.

Pradeep, a farmer from Puttegowdana Hundi near Mysuru, started growing Mangaluru cucumbers five years back on a three-acre plot as he shifted to drip irrigation. “I used to grow paddy and plantain, which are both water-intensive crops. I chose to grow Mangaluru cucumber which is in great demand as a stop-gap crop, because it requires less water and gives yield in around two months. We can harvest three crops from a single plant after which, we need to sow afresh or can choose a different crop, too. One acre can yield 15 tonnes of cucumber,” says Pradeep, adding that many drought-hit farmers in the region are falling back on cucumbers.

In Mangaluru, the local markets await their daily supply of cucumbers from Hassan and Chikmagalur. The homes that have traditionally depended on home-grown vegetables like gulla (eggplant), suvarna gedde (elephant yam), alasande (black eyed beans) or Mangaluru southekayi for cooking, complain of peacock and monkey menace. “Earlier, we used to grow nearly 100 kilos of Mangaluru cucumber. But the peacocks are destroying the plants. We now buy all the vegetables from the local market,” says Reshma Bhat, a homemaker from Mangaluru.

An array of curries and side dishes are prepared with the cucumber, which tastes like a gourd when cooked. Unlike normal cucumbers, it is fleshy and white inside. The coastal belt specialises in many types of sambar. The two popular varieties are masala huli, which has vegetables, tamarind extract, lentils and coconut, and bolu huli which is almost the same, sans the coconut.

The Udupi Brahmin style of southekayi huli is a signature dish of Udupi temples and mutts, where the spicy sambar is prepared without onion and garlic. The cucumber is diced after removing the the seed-filled inner pulp, and is cooked with tamarind extract, jaggery, salt and turmeric powder. A spoon each of white lentil, coriander, cumin and fenugreek seeds with red chillies and curry leaves are roasted for a few minutes and ground with half a cup of grated coconut. The ground masala is then added to the cooked cucumber and brought to a boil. The appetising sambar is ready to be savoured only after it is garnished with mustard seeds, white lentils, red chillies and curry leaves spluttered in oil.

Magge polo is a traditional Konkani dosa made of Mangaluru cucumber. The dosa batter is prepared by grinding two cups of rice (soaked in water for two hours) with two cups of cubed cucumber and some grated coconut, with a dash of salt and jaggery.

For those with a sweet tooth, magge surnali—a sweet and spongy dosa—makes for a healthy breakfast. The batter is prepared with two cups of raw rice (soaked), 1/2 cup grated coconut, one cup beaten rice, 1/2 cup curd, 3/4 cup jaggery, one spoon turmeric powder and salt. The mix is to be left overnight for fermentation.

According to K.R.M. Swamy, former principal scientist and head of the division of vegetable crops at ICAR (Indian Institute of Horticultural Research), Bengaluru, these cucumbers are an excellent source of fibre, are rich in vitamins A, C and E and contain antioxidants. They have anti-ageing properties, work as an immunity booster and also help prevent macular degeneration of the eye. Studies show that the antioxidants in the seeds keep blood cholesterol under check. It is a good source of minerals like magnesium, phosphorous and potassium that regulate blood pressure.