Society

Go Gherkin!

On the less trodden path: K.S.M. Mohamed Saleem. Photo: S. James

On the less trodden path: K.S.M. Mohamed Saleem. Photo: S. James

“People in this part of the world do not know or believe that gherkin is edible,” says K.S.M.Mohamed Saleem. Down South, what people refer to as ‘poison cucumber’, Saleem crafted a career out of it starting as an entrepreneur in the late 1990s.

Today, he is the Managing Director of his company, Bnazrum Agro Exports Private Limited with an annual turnover of 15,000 metric tonnes of the pickled cucumber -- generically known as gherkins, that is exported to Russia, France, Germany, U.K., USA, Canada, UAE, Korea, Japan and Australia.

An underdog in his family that was into leather business, Saleem says he bounced around between schools as a child.

“I changed eight schools and finally decided against college education,” he chuckles, “My parents thought I will never amount to anything.”

Now, he does business to the tune of 11 million USD and is preparing for expanding his company.

“My future target is to export cherry tomatoes, babycorn, jalapenos, red and yellow bell peppers,” he says

As a young boy, Saleem enjoyed chaperoning the foreign customers who came for business to his family-owned tanneries in Dindigul. “I liked the way they spoke English, their mannerisms and smartness, their attires and perfumes and tried to emulate them.”

And then one day, he says, he stopped by an opportunity! Driving down Oddanchatram, he saw a foreigner couple inspecting a truck. Thinking they were in some trouble, he got down to offer help. “Instead, I discovered gherkins,” he laughs. Till then, young Saleem too was ignorant of the small prickly baby cucumber used for pickling.

He trailed the couple and discovered that it was a popular side snack in Europe, Australia and the West. Not interested in pursuing traditional career options and family business, Saleem says, he “took advantage of the new knowledge to fund a dream.”

Like in every entrepreneur’s struggle, it was not easy initially. “But I sensed tremendous opportunity in gherkins,” says Saleem. He researched the market well. Lack of experience did not hold him back on his journey which he calls “the finding of gherkins”. To convince local farmers to grow gherkins was tough. But once they realised the value of this cash crop which sucks in less water, Saleem’s first barrel of gherkins traditionally soaked in salt and vinegar was shipped off the coast in 1998. When the first year straightaway fetched him Rs.25 lakhs, Saleem filled in the missing links to expand his business and income.

He toured the countryside in search of small and marginal farmers, imported seeds, invested in imported machinery from Germany, hired more labourers. Today, he employs 300 permanent workers and an equal number of daily wagers to run, what he describes as “the country’s most wanted business.” “It supports the farmer and brings the government foreign exchange,” he asserts.

Saleem’s company is one among the 50-odd in India doing business with the world and together exporting an impressive tonnage of 2,25,000 MT. “There is an ever growing demand and India in the last two decades has emerged as the finest gherkin cultivator and exporter,” says Saleem, who now has 6,000 farmers working for him in Tumkur and Chitradunga in Karnataka, Kuppam and Ananthapur in Andhra Pradesh and Tirunelveli, Pudukkottai, Dindigul, Salem, Dharmapuri, Thirupothoor, Krishnagiri and Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu.

He gives the farmers all inputs, technical support and an assured guaranteed buy back of crop at pre-declared prices. He also goes an extra step bringing batches of farmers periodically to his factory spread over 30 acres at the foothills of Sirumalai, discussing their problems over food and showing them the quality check process in place to reinforce the need for high quality product given the discerning taste of international consumers.

Earlier, Saleem was exporting gherkins in bulk in food grade drums. But now he sends them in “ready-to-eat” jars also.

The day I am at his processing plant, the work is on feverishly to meet an order for 15 lakh bottles for the Russian company “Bahr”. France, Belgium, Canada, Spain, Germany, Dubai, USA buy large quantity of bottled Indian gherkins from him making him the second largest in Tamil Nadu and among the top five in India.

Still, rues, Saleem, India with total export of over Rs.1,000 crores contributes to only six per cent of global demand. “We can easily double the share and take 20 to 30 per cent of the global market with little more help and support from the government in terms of subsidies, fertiliser availability and labour engagement from the 100-day working scheme,” he adds.

The gherkin industry in India is fully oriented with every exporting company adhering to quality control through the value chain. Saleem gets the unmistakable clear glass jars from Hyderabad and the bright green, red and yellow caps from Manipal and Sri Lanka. The production process includes culling, washing and machine grading the fruits and filling in the jars with customer-specified preservative media and ingredients including vinegar or brine, wet dill weed, yellow mustard, onion flakes, black pepper, chopped garlic, red chillies, capsicum cubes, coriander and vine leaves. Once capped, the gherkins are pasteurised and labelled to customer specifications and checked for quality control.

The baby cucumber, says Saleem, is not yet in limelight in India. From the size of the thumb to larger ones with a taste that crosses between a lemon and a water melon, it makes for a good bite with its crunchy and crisp texture and sweet and sour flavour. You can eat them straight out of the jar or wedge them in a sandwich or spice up your burgers and tortillas. The small-sized gherkins are popular in Europe while the bigger ones go to USA and Russia. Each country has its own taste and recipe, some want it to be a perfect blend of acidity and sweetness, some like zesty or herbal, some go for mild and sour, others prefer tart, juicy and garlicky. Saleem’s company has the copyright for 80 different recipes from across the world, including a few indigenous ones which he prepares for a north-Indian company.

Next time if you happen to see an imported bottle of pickled cucumber in a departmental store here, remember with pride it is all desi grown and manufactured!

Saleem’s success mantra

Saleem believes farmers need technology to make things happen. “I am getting my profit but I am more interested in the product,” says Saleem. “I tell my farmers not to give up paddy cultivation but agriculture has to be export-oriented if the farmer has to benefit,” he says. “By using less water and within a shorter time, gherkins can help to double the income. You cannot keep a good crop down for long,” he adds.

Brands that come out of Saleem’s factory include: Reitzel International, Vlasic, Mt.Olive, Bay Valley, Kosher, Vitaland, Albert Heijn.


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Printable version | May 20, 2022 12:46:26 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/go-gherkin/article6291788.ece