ON A WEEKDAY IN MID JULY, I arrived at the factory of Vishaal Natural Food Products, in the town of Korategere in Karnataka, about a hundred kilometres north-west of Bangalore. The odour of vinegar emanated through the gate as I presented myself to a security guard. Once inside, I headed for the company’s offices. In an outer room, amid the din filtering in from the adjacent production floor, three clerks sat at tables overflowing with files and telephones. Beyond lay the office of Madhusudan, the company’s owner, a soft-spoken, middle-aged man who seemed shy of attention. Posters of gherkins and chillies hung on the wall. Madhusudan’s desk was crammed with jars and cans bearing a variety of labels, all filled with pickled gherkins.
Gherkins, popular across Europe and North America and almost ubiquitous in the salads and sandwiches of many multinational fast-food chains, are big business for Madhusudan, and increasingly for India. Madhusudan operates out of the country’s “gherkin belt,” a swathe of territory overlapping Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where gherkin cultivation is booming and a growing number of companies pickle and sometimes also bottle gherkins for international brands. The soil and climate here—temperatures range between 15 and 35 degrees Celsius year-round—allow for up to three annual harvests, and produce gherkins considered to be of high quality, giving India an edge over rival producers such as Vietnam, Ukraine, China and Turkey.
“Gherkin crop is grown in a total of 50,000 acres, involving one lakh farmers,” Chennappa Gowda, the secretary of the Indian Gherkin Exporters’ Association, told me over the phone. According to the IGEA, India currently has 51 gherkin processing companies—27 in Karnataka, 19 in Tamil Nadu, three in Andhra Pradesh, and one each in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Production started in the early 1990s, and kicked up sharply at the end of that decade. From Rs 50 crore in fiscal year 1997, Indian gherkin exports rose to Rs 857 crore in fiscal year 2012. Still, India controls only a small share of the global processed gherkin market—$0.14 billion of a total estimated value of $2.85 billion, according to the IGEA.