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Bael fruit

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Bael (Aegle marmelos) (also known as Bengal quince, stone apple or wood apple) or Bilva is a species of tree native to India. It is present throughout Southeast Asia as a naturalised species. Hindus consider the tree to be sacred. Its fruits are used in traditional medicine and as a food throughout its range.

File:Bael (Aegle marmelos) tree at Narendrapur W IMG 4115.jpg
Bael tree (Aegle marmelos) at Narendrapur near Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Fruit

The bael fruit has a smooth, woody shell with a green, gray, or yellow peel. It takes about 11 months to ripen on the tree and can reach the size of a large grapefruit or pomelo, and some are even larger. The shell is so hard it must be cracked with a hammer or machete. The fibrous yellow pulp is very aromatic. It has been described as tasting of marmalade and smelling of roses. Numerous hairy seeds are encapsulated in a slimy mucilage.

Culinary usage

The fruit is eaten fresh or dried. If fresh, the juice is strained and sweetened to make a drink similar to lemonade. It can be made into sharbat (Hindi), a refreshing drink made of the pulp with water, sugar, and lime juice, mixed, left to stand a few hours, strained, and put on ice. One large bael fruit may yield five or six litres of sharbat.

If the fruit is to be dried, it is usually sliced and sun-dried. The hard leathery slices are then simmered in water.

The leaves and small shoots are eaten as salad greens.

Religious significance

The fruit is used in religious rituals. In Hinduism the tree is sacred. It is used in the worship of Shiva, who is said to favour the leaves. The trifoliate leaves symbolize the trident that Shiva holds in his right hand. The fruits were used in place of coconuts before large-scale rail transportation became available. The fruit is said to resemble a skull with a white, bone-like outer shell and a soft inner part, and is sometimes called seer phael (head-fruit). However, it is quite likely that, the term 'Seer Phal' has coined from the Sanskrit term 'ShreePhal, which again is a common name for this fruit. Many Hindus have bael trees in their gardens.

In the traditional Newari culture of Nepal, the bael tree is part of a fertility ritual for girls known as the Bel baha. Girls are "married" to the bael fruit and as long as the fruit is kept safe and never cracks the girl can never become widowed, even if her human husband dies. This was seen to be protection against the social disdain suffered by widows in the Newari community.

Botanical

Bael is the only member of the monotypic genus Aegle. It is a mid-sized, slender, aromatic, armed, gum-bearing tree growing up to 18 meters tall. It has a leaf with three leaflets. Bael occurs in dry forests on hills and plains of northern, central and southern India, southern Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It is cultivated throughout India, as well as in Sri Lanka, the northern Malay Peninsula, Java, the Philippines, and Fiji and has a reputation for being able to grow in places that other trees cannot.

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