Growing Burr Gherkins

You can grow your own gherkin pickles and more with this pest-proof mini cuke/squash from Africa. Try growing burr gherkins to make delicious pickles and a spicy Brazillian stir-fry.


| December 2008/January 2009



Growing burr gherkins. Originating in West Africa, these funny-looking cukes can be pickled, eaten raw, or cooked like zucchini. Try them in the Brazillian stir-fry recipe at the end of this article.

Originating in West Africa, these funny-looking cukes can be pickled, eaten raw, or cooked like zucchini. Try them in the Brazillian stir-fry recipe at the end of this article.

ROB CARDILLO

Growing Burr gherkins is fun and makes an interesting garden addition for those who love pickles or wish to add interest to soups and stir-fries. They can also be eaten raw like cucumbers. Read about how easy they are to grow and harvest, and try out this recipe for a hot and spicy Brazillian stir-fry, called “maxixada.”

Growing Burr Gherkins

Burr gherkins, also known as West Indian burr gherkins (Cucumis anguria), are one of the old-time favorites among heirloom gardeners because of their productivity and multiple uses in the kitchen — plus their pest-free maintenance. Their flavor is mild and resembles cucumbers (when young), without the strong “green” bitterness of some common cucumbers. You can eat them raw or pickled, or even cooked like zucchini.

Burr gherkins do not have the same long, narrow shape as the better-known French gherkins, but instead are round and covered in edible dull “spikes,” strongly resembling green . . . well . . . burrs.

Once pickled, the flavor and texture are much the same as the French gherkins. In fact, the unusual shape of the burr gherkin makes it an interesting addition to almost any pickle mixture, but what most early American cookbooks failed to mention is that burr gherkins can be cooked like squash and served in a variety of dishes.

The Path of Pickles from the Portuguese

There was a lot of controversy in the 19th century about the origin of burr gherkins. I waded through the mountains of botanical journals devoted to this issue in 1996 when I decided to include burr gherkins in my book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. Many Victorian botanists thought the plant came from Jamaica, but as it turned out, burr gherkins originated in West Africa and they were brought to the New World during the 1500s by both the Spanish and Portuguese, a seed exchange encouraged in part by the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

A closer look at African-based dishes in the Caribbean and South America confirms this old connection with Africa. In the Bahia region of Brazil, where Afro-Brazilian culture is the strongest, burr gherkins are called maxixe (mah-SHEE-shay) and they form the most important ingredient in a traditional dish called maxixada (mah-shee-SHAH-dah). This delicious and distinctive preparation deserves to be better-known, and because it’s a creative way to use the gherkins (especially if you like spicy foods), I have adapted a recipe (below) from Salvador, the capital of Bahia. Established in 1549, it is known today for its exquisite architecture , as well as its reputation as the center of a culinary renaissance. In Bahia, no respectable kitchen garden is without its maxixe.





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