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Bel: the fruit of gods, ghosts and summer afternoons | Condé Nast Traveller India | India


An Indian summer is a melee of memories, books, long holidays, afternoon siestas, and an assortment of fruits. While summer fruit is synonymous with mango, each part of the country has its own seasonal fruits that make striking cameo appearances through the long spell of hot weather. Take, for example, the bel or wood apple. 

As a child, this was the fruit that was entirely offensive to both my olfactory senses and my gut. I perceived the bel less as a treat and more of a trick played by my mother who blended it with copious quantities of milk in order for her child to finally drink the daily regulated glass. 

However, many years later, the same fruit whipped into a yoghurt smoothie was entirely delightful in its complex mix of flavours. Some call it an acquired taste while I realized, it was a late coming of age for my palate. 

Call me by an apple

Despite its name, the fruit bears little resemblance to an apple, although the woody part is not so inaccurate. A hard yellowish-brown rind encases the soft and fleshy pulp within. Belonging to the family Rutaceae, this indigenous Indian fruit has many names—Bengal quince, Indian quince, golden apple, holy fruit, stone apple—all related to its resemblance to other fruit, objects as well as its cultural resonance. 

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Bel pulp; Subodh Sathe / Alamy Stock Photo
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Across India, the ripe bel is less consumed whole and almost always pulped into a juice sherbet, nectar or candy. In terms of smells and flavours, the bel has a unique profile and one that yields as many fans as haters. 

Part funky, part musky, part sweet, part tangy, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around the complexity of the fruit and the many tricks it plays with your senses. 

The traditional summer coolant with hipster potential 

It is perhaps this surprising bouquet of flavours that has led to its varied interpretations as a summer cooler. 

Synonymous with late afternoons, bel fruit drinks can be sweet and tangy by turns. In Bengal, the beler shorbot combines ripe bel pulp with milk, sugar and ice, while Odisha’s bela pana is a tangy drink where the pulp is mixed with lemon juice, black pepper, mint leaves, ice and water. Another festive version of this drink served during Maha Vishubha Sankranti or the traditional Odia new year is a rich mix of bel, cottage cheese, jaggery and fruits like banana and pomegranates. 

The options are many and modern renditions with yogurt or almond milk or even as an ice cream or sorbet could well find their way into hipster smoothie and salad bars. Added to this bel’s purported health benefits which are multifaceted and work as a tonic, laxative and digestive rolled into one. 

Bel tree. photo Getty images/CGDEAW

The fruit of gods and ghosts  

The bel fruit has special resonance as a holy fruit among Hindus and its leaves and fruit are associated with the worship of Shiva. In Bengal, a twist in the plot comes by way of the myth of the Brahmadaitya. For this ghost of a deceased Brahmin, the sacred bel tree is a favoured haunt and one he continues to inhabit even as a spirit. 

Various other myths related to its mystical superpowers abound across South Asia. In Nepal, for example, pre-adolescent girls from the Newari community have a symbolic wedding where a bel fruit is used as a representation of Lord Vishnu and is meant to protect the girl’s future. As per tradition, all Newari girls who have undergone this marriage, will never be considered widows, even if their mortal husband passes away at some point in their lives and can choose to remarry as many times as they wish.   





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Updated: April 7, 2021 — 2:40 pm

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