February 26, 2020

The Crispy Wonder of the Persian Cucumber 

In terms of fresh produce, there are few things as sacrilegious to most Middle Easterners than eating those bulky, tasteless, American slicing cucumbers.

They’re unnecessarily thick, have an inedible peel and measure up to 10 inches. Elizabeth Schneider, author of “Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference,” even went so far as to call this variety “pumped-up, tasteless, seedy blimps with greasy, thick, nasty skin masquerading as cucumbers.”

As an Iranian American, I may be biased but in terms of freshness, crunchiness and that unmistakable cucumber scent that wafts through the summer heat, nothing comes close to the Persian cucumber.

Or, as many horticulturists call it, “Beit Alpha,” after its birthplace.

The Persian cucumber as we know it today first was cultivated on a northern Israeli kibbutz in 1939.

If it’s hard to believe that the Persian cucumber got its start in Israel, it’s more mind-bending to learn that the first farmers to cultivate this extraordinary fruit — the staple of every Middle Eastern salad from Tehran to Tel Aviv — were Polish immigrants.

Every time I enjoy the crispness of these practically seedless treats, which grow up to six inches and whose peels are also delightfully edible, I think of that northern Israeli kibbutz, which still exists.

Experience has led me to believe that Persian culture has a unique way of taking over, and cucumbers are no exception. It wasn’t long before the cucumbers’ popularity soared across the Middle East and the moniker became the “Persian” cucumber.

We chuckle at the charming habits of non-Persians who pay more than 79 cents a pound for Persian cucumbers at major supermarket chains.

Persians take their cucumbers, or khiar, very seriously, and they eat half a dozen a day, on average, which explains why they are so cheap at Persian markets.

I’m referring to cucumbers, not Persians.

We chuckle at the charming habits of non-Persians who pay more than 79 cents a pound for Persian cucumbers at major supermarket chains. Owners of local Persian supermarkets know to expect riots if they ever raise the price of their cucumbers.

Because picking the perfect Persian cucumber begins long before one enters the Persian market, here are my foolproof guidelines:

Before leaving the house, stuff your socks with anything that can serve as padding, such as cotton balls, more socks, or even day-old bread. Take extra precaution around your shins; old Persian women seem to delight in attacking many a vulnerable shank as they viciously push their carts through crowded aisles and toward the prized fresh produce.

Once at the market, immediately proceed to the produce section, locate the massive bin of Persian cucumbers and then identify a Persian grandmother.

As sure as the sun rises in the East, there is always a grandmother next to the bin of Persian cucumbers. Stand directly behind her without scaring the poor woman.

She will be your adopted grandmother for the duration of your time at the cucumber bin.

Watch carefully as she picks up each cucumber and inspects it for four nearly unattainable virtues: length, firmness, girth and an unblemished peel. Since old Persian women choose only perfect cucumbers, look carefully at each cucumber she deems inadequate and returns to the bin.

These are your cucumbers.

You’ll never have her skill in choosing the perfect ones so don’t bother. But in buying your adopted Persian grandmother’s rejected cucumbers, you can rest assured you got second best, which is good enough for you.

If you value the advantage of selecting Persian cucumbers, be aware that trying to purchase them at Trader Joe’s — or anywhere else where they’re prepackaged — is frustrating because you can’t open one pre-wrapped container and swap unattractive cucumbers for more appealing ones from another container. I know this from personal experience as well as from the faces of several disgruntled employees. It’s best to take your swollen ankles, calves and shins back to the Persian market, where cucumbers are sold in bulk.

From breakfast buffets in Jerusalem hotels, kebab shops in Isfahan, and falafel stands in Beirut, the Persian cucumber often is the main ingredient in a fresh, crispy salad. Of course, my Shirazi-born husband and his family would demand that I call this salad by its now-universal term, in Iran, at least: “Salad-e-Shirazi,” or the Shirazi salad.

Growing up in Iran, my sister and I would fight viciously over who would get to slurp the juice from the finished salad bowl, until we arrived in the U.S. and discovered the heavenly milk that was leftover in our cereal bowls.

Shirazi Salad (SALAD-E SHIRAZI)

4 Persian cucumbers, unpeeled, ends trimmed and diced into 1/4-inch pieces
3 Roma tomatoes, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
1/3 cup red onions, diced into 1/8-inch pieces
1 teaspoon dried mint
1/4 to 1/3 cup of freshly-squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

In a non-metallic bowl, add the first four ingredients and mix gently. Just before serving, add the lime juice (beginning with 1/4 cup and adding more, if necessary), olive oil, salt and pepper and toss gently.

This salad can be served at room temperature and works beautifully alongside heavier dishes such as meat, rice or stew. If you find yourself fighting over the last bit of juice in the bowl, thank the kibbutzniks who brought this wonderful fruit to life 80 years ago.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.