In 1909, the American botanist David Fairchild received a box of seeds and a fruit from one Mr Mustoe of the Archaeological Park of Lahore. The parcel was accompanied by a letter that described the properties of the fruit in question. “The bael tree is common in the greater part of India and its wood is one of the few woods prescribed in the Hindu scriptures for sacrificial fires”. The letter added that the bael fruit is “greatly valued for eating by the natives but can scarcely be palatable to the white man except for its medicinal properties”.
The letter went on to describe the medicinal properties of the bael in great detail. “The unripe fruit is boiled or roasted, the pulp is a laxative and when mixed with milk or water, or both, makes a healthy coolant and agreeable sherbet. To make this, the natives take the pulp out of the fruit, then pass it through a strainer and add it to a glass of milk or water”.
The properties of the bael evoked much interest among colonial horticulturists in India. In the Dictionary of Economic Products of India (1890), the botanist George Watt writes that “no drug has been better appreciated by the inhabitants of India than bael”. “The unripe fruit is cut up and sun dried and, in this form, is sold in the bazaars in whole or broken slices”. “The ripe fruit is sweet, aromatic and cooling”.
The colonists were, however, quick to note that the taste for bael was an acquired one. In the Manual of Gardening in India (1863), Thomas Augustus Firminger writes that “the interior of the bael contains a soft yellow substance of peas pudding-like consistency, intermingled with a limpid kind of slime, a very fragrant scent and a flavour very agreeable to those accustomed to it. The high reputation it bears for its medicinal properties make many partake of it and those who do so become remarkably fond of it.”
The interests of the colonial botanists and horticulturists in the bael was, however, rarely matched by most other Westerners. Watt quotes one Surgeon Major HJ Hazlitt of the Nilgiri Hills as decrying the fruit as “unpleasant”. Fairchild’s efforts to introduce the bael to America failed. The bael, by most accounts, remained a uniquely Indian summer fruit till health food aficionados globally became alive to its virtues.
In Odisha, a drink of the bael panna heralds the new year. Mashed bananas, grated coconuts, jaggery, mixed with the bael juice, garnished with cardamom, clove, nutmeg and a tiny amount of camphor is first offered to the gods and goddesses before being consumed by pitcherfuls. The drink gives the Odia new year one of its names: Pana Sankranti.
Summer is the time for fruits in the country. The messy bael, succulent mangoes, fleshy peaches, luscious plums, dripping watermelons and several other fruits make the difficult Indian summer bearable. The bael, for example, finds a mention in the Ayurveda as a wonder product of sorts. Its juice rejuvenates in the scorching weather. The leaves, bark and seeds of the bael tree are laden with medicinal properties. Its stickiness and bitter aftertaste means the fruit works brilliantly as a marmalade. Fairchild and Watt’s early endeavours to introduce the product to the Western taste are bearing fruit more than a century later, with niche heath food outfits extolling the virtues of the bael. Its anti-fungal qualities ensure that bael, and bael products, last longer on the shelves.
Activities of kings, nobles, farmers, traders and scientists have contributed to the oeuvre of Indian summer fruits. The Grand Trunk Road once was lined with mulberry trees by the Mughal rulers and their feudatories. For weary travellers, the juicy elongated fruit would be a source of instant energy and nutrition. In kitchens in several parts of the country, women would soak the fruit and boil the pulp, making a sherbet out of it. But mulberry is fast disappearing from common people’s plates in India.
Another summer fruit undergoing a change of sorts is the jamun. The14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta describes the fruit as “abundant” around Delhi. The British chose the jamun trees as a part of the foliage for Lutyens’ Delhi. Both sides of the capital’s Rajpath became home to canopies of trees of the purple leathery fruit. But jamun-sellers in the capital are becoming increasingly scarce and pushcarts selling the fruit with the grape-like texture and a sharp tang are rarer fixtures in Indian bazaars. The jamun, though, is in vogue in the health food market. Low on calories, they are a rich source of proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoid manganese, potassium, phosphorous and calcium.