Cucurbits, or the Cucurbitaceae family, is actually a clan arising from nine famous sisters: Benincasa, Citrullus, Cucumis, Cucurbita, Lagenaria, Luffa, Momordica, Sechium and Trichsanthes that we know as calabash, cucumber, gourds, melons, pumpkins and squashes.
Just as in any family or clan, there are similarities and differences. Some members are tough skinned, while the others are so delicate that the slightest abrasion ruptures their thin skin.
The cucumber, Cucumis sativus, is a delicate darling when tender, but can develop a tough skin when mature.
There are many types of cucumbers and they have different uses. The tender peepri or pimprim are eaten fresh, whole, sliced along the length or cut into discs of various thickness, diced or even grated.
There are dual use cucumbers that are eaten fresh when raw and cooked when mature.
The third type of cucumbers are used exclusively for cooking. These are variously known as Sautekai, or Sikkim cucumber, though cucumber does not seem to be a popular vegetable from what I have seen in the markets of Sikkim and Bhutan over the years.
THE GOA SCENE
Traditional farmers in Goa have grown cucumbers, muskmelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins and gourds on the hillsides from Sattari to Canacona. There are more cucumbers in the Ponda taluka, specially around Farmagudi, which is famous for the tender peepri cucumbers.
The other extreme is the tavshem or the mature cucumber which is cooked with coconut juice to make curry, or grated to make a tavsali or halwa. Goa’s
Catholics call all forms of cucumber as touxem and so it is the ‘Touxeachem Fest’ although what is offered to the idol of St Anne is the peepri or pepino.
The month of July does not come to an end without the traditional Touxeachem Fest or ‘Cucumber Festival’ which is celebrated with great fervour at Santan-Talaulim, a stone’s throw away from Velha Goa (Old Goa) on the banks of the River Mandovi and Goa Velha on the bank of the River Zuari.
Traditionally celebrated on 26 July, it is now celebrated by the Catholic Church on the first Sunday after that date. The feast has evolved with the legend of Santa Ana, or Santan Saibinn, as the maternal grandmother of Jesus Christ is locally known.
‘Senhora, levai pepino e da a mi menino’ is the plea of childless couples offering a cucumber (pepino in Portuguese and peepri in the Konkani language) to St Anne and requesting to be blessed with a child (menino).
How that Portuguese language rhyme led to the religious tradition invoking the fertility goddess in Goa during the Portuguese colonial era (1510 to 1961 AD) is anybody’s guess. It is a fact that coastal India had a fertility cult and the people of the Konkan always had a goddess, Sateri Saibinn, in her various forms, to turn to in times of need. God, to the people of the Konkan, was a woman.
The ‘Mother of God’ dogma of the Vatican made putting two and two together to make seven sisters was made easy.
By extrapolation, St Anne is the indulgent grandmother of Christ, from whom it is easier to obtain a favour. The name of the game is known as ‘inculturation’ among the Roman Catholics. Cucumber, Cucumis sativus, is just one part of the socio-cultural aspects of religion.
The author is a former Chairman of the GCCI Agriculture Committee, CEO of Planter's Choice Pvt Ltd, Additional Director of OFAI and Garden Superintendent of Goa University, and has edited 18 books for Goa & Konkan