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How a humble cucumber tells the story of Lebanese migration to Australia

Sydney farmer Joe Boustani in his Lebanese cucumber plantation. Source: Dr Nabil Ahmad and Joe Boustani

The final episode of the BaSSamat podcast's first season looks at how the Lebanese cucumber got its name and how it grew in popularity over the decades. Lebanese-Australian Youssef "Joe" Boustani, who has been growing the vegetable for three decades, takes us through his personal journey.

Among the most identifiable products in the fresh produce section of an Australian supermarket is the Lebanese cucumber. 

Simply put, it is a miniature version of the longer continental cucumber, is nearly seedless and has a distinct aroma and flavour.

But why do we call it a Lebanese cucumber in Australia if the same vegetable is eaten across the globe?  

The answer is simple – Migrants from Lebanon brought it with them from their homeland and it eventually grew in popularity.

Youssef "Joe" Boustani arrived in Australia from Lebanon in 1972 and was among the migrants to plant and sell Lebanese cucumbers.

He's been a farmer for more than 30 years and runs his own business in south-west Sydney.

"I was one of the top ten or fifteen farmers who planted Lebanese cucumbers and other types of cucumbers in sheltered plastic [greenhouse] tents in Australia." 

Lebanese cucumbers
Lebanese cucumbers are small, smooth-skinned and mild tasting.
Dr Nabil Ahmad

In Australia, he said, this type of cucumber was attributed to the Lebanese community because migrants from Lebanon were the first to bring the seeds from their country and began planting them in their backyards. 

He recalls that Lebanese cucumbers were not known to other farmers when he arrived, and the only option in the market at that time was known as a slicing cucumber. 

"Our people used to bring some cucumber seeds with them, or some would send them to us from Lebanon so that we could plant them for one season only,” Mr Boustani said.  

“The cucumbers were offered to visitors, and Lebanese families liked to visit the families that planted them in their homes so that they could enjoy its taste again.” 

Generational farming

Fittingly, Boustani means “gardener” in Arabic and his family's experience in that sector dates back many generations in the seaside Lebanese village of Jiyeh.

But while living in Lebanon, he never intended to work in that sector and opted instead to teach French. 

"In Lebanon, young people used to run away from work in agriculture. The truth is that this is the case everywhere. We were thinking of finding a proper office job. 

“Agriculture in Lebanon at that time was not easy either, it was a big effort with little return. There was no help or any service facilitation, or enough farming culture and education to support this sector. 

"I would never have imagined in my life that I would end up in the agriculture sector." 

Jo Boustani
Joe Boustani arrived in Australia in 1972 and has been a farmer for three decades.
Joe Boustani

During his first years in Australia, he had many jobs and teaching was not one of them. 

"I started working like any migrant at the time, each of us was imitating the other, or following in the footsteps of the other. 

“I worked in fabrics, and then tried to establish a small restaurant and then worked as a taxi driver until the agriculture wave reached the community." 

Fate would eventually catch up with him, and Mr Boustani ended up doing the last thing he imagined he would. 

"People started building greenhouses, so many of our community members moved to work in the plastic tents and this is how I entered the sector." 

His journey in the world of cucumbers was not easy, despite the joy that having cucumbers available brought to Arab migrants at the time. 

But he recalls that the flavour of Lebanese cucumbers and the way that Arabs would eat them as a snack surprised Australian back then. 

"They used to call us rabbits. They were not used to eating vegetables as snacks like everyone does today or without cutting them into a salad. 

"But the advantage of Lebanese cucumbers is that they contain enough sweetness to be eaten alone as a snack, but at the beginning, the market was not ready to accept that until this changed, and the demand for this type of cucumber reached 90 per cent among others in the market." 

It was only a matter of time, and the popularity of the Lebanese cucumber increased and became a kitchen essential. 

One of the first challenges Mr Boustani faced was how to shift consumer behaviour. 

For Arab migrants, there was a paradigm shift in the form and shape of the slim cucumbers that they were used to eating in Arab countries. 

For example, cucumbers in the Arab world are often referred to as “baby finger cucumbers,” due to their size.

While in Australia, the cucumbers are grown much larger.

Community contribution

The success of the Lebanese and Arab communities in Australia’s agricultural sector is not limited to cucumber farming and extends to other types of vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbs. 

Mr Boustani believes one of the biggest achievements of these communities in this sector was being among the first to use protective plastic tents that did not exist in Australia in the past. 

"I think that we, the Arab migrants were the first to grow vegetables in the greenhouses, and the Department of Agriculture and the whole society admit that we have introduced this type of agriculture to Australia." 

He said his own farm has evolved and his love for agriculture has increased over time, and today he's proud of what his community has been able to offer the country. 

"I grow cucumbers with love. The sprout is like a little child who needs care. I spoil it to give me the best it has. I am proud that my farm produces Lebanese cucumbers 365 days a year." 

Among the people who have made a significant contribution to this sector and in producing a new generation of Lebanese cucumbers in Australia is Dr Nabil Ahmad, who arrived in Australia in 2000. 

Dr Nabil Ahmad
Dr Nabil Ahmad works with a number of farmers across New South Wales.
Dr Nabil Ahmad

The Sydney University academic has conducted valuable research in developing local seeds that suit Australia's climate and has supported local farmers to improve their production.

"I worked on research on cucumber, tomato and okra to study their resistance to climatic conditions and soil in Australia," he said.

“I had a contribution to developing hybrid varieties of vegetable crops to have resistance to local environmental conditions. Because most of our dependence in Australia now on seeds of crops from other countries." 

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