Not just ‘pulp’ fiction

Prized through history for its myriad medicinal properties, Bael’s recent popularity in the culinary corridor has not just been as a delightful drink but as the superfood that walks the tight rope between palate pleasure and wellness.

Last year, when seasoned bartender and co-owner of Sidecar, Yangdup Lama decided to experiment with premixes once again—a concept that hadn’t done as well in India as it had abroad—he was driven by two things. One, finding a way for people to enjoy the tipple; and two, and perhaps more vital, says the award-winning bartender, “was to create a concentrate based on the traditional practices that also benefitted health”. After several weeks of experimenting and perfecting the concentrate that could straddle the spheres of pleasure and wellness, the award-winning bartender launched his first series of premixes with Bael Shrub as one of the stars.

“The thing about Bael,” continues Lama, who is now making his second batch of the shrub for in-house use, “is that it comes across as this delicious fruit with an all-familiar flavours profile. It has this inexplicable but very effective all-palate appeal and can blossom into a beautiful concoction with just a few spices used thoughtfully. For a bartender looking to create drinks, it is one of the fascinating produces that opens a door of infinite possibility–and this, despite the fruit’s sweet and fibrous nature.”

Bael juice
Traditionally, Bael has been revered in India for its medicinal properties. Now, the culinary world is waking up to its wonderful benefits.
Photo courtesy CulinaryXpress

“When it comes to creating sophisticated cocktails, few fruits can beat Bael. It is aromatic and has these different levels of sweetness that can be played with and paired beautifully to make an interesting cocktail,” admits the author of Cocktails & Dreams: The Ultimate Indian Cocktail Book, whose preferred way of having the fruit is as a sherbet that comes with that unmissable ‘puckering’ mouthfeel followed by a cooling sensation.

Interestingly, Lama isn’t the only one falling for the charms of the traditional Bael sherbet and its goodness. Many seasoned culinary minds such as Chef Abhijit Saha and Chef Nimish Bhatia too have rediscovered the beauty of this all-season fruit.

Recalls Chef Saha, whose association with Bael started when his grandmother would make Bael juice during summers. “Especially during at the beginning of summer, when the heat would play hide and seek with us. She made it both sweet and sour and it was much loved because it was her house special. Little did I know then that it was one of the many, effective, crazily delicious drinks that did more than play our tongue. It was this juice that protected us against heat strokes.”

Sidecar premixes
Yangdup Lama of Sidecar released a bunch of premixes with the Bael shrub as one of the stars.
Photo courtesy Sidecar

Concurs Chef Bhatia, who loves the globous fruit as part of his breakfast, “especially mixed with sattu (roasted gram flour)”. Much like the Indonesians, who, like Indians, consider Bael as a “cure-all fruit”. And for good reason, says the cuisine specialist. Ancient Indians used the entire Bael tree for its curative properties including the leaves that are a rich source of tannins, flavonoids, and coumarins and thus, effective in curing inflammation, asthma and even regulating blood sugar. “The sweet, luscious pulp was harvested to make drinks and chutneys that worked as a remedy for every single issue that stemmed from the stomach—from keeping our bodies cool to digesting, detoxing and even calming down an overactive system. In fact, it was the go-to vitamin pill to even keep cold and fever at bay,” continues chef Bhatia.

And how did Bael do that? With a simple drink that was made with freshly squeezed juice seasoned with black pepper, salt and sugar or jaggery to taste.

While it may look as simple as juice, the Bael juice in this traditional form, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “packs in a cauldron of nutrients including A, B1, B2, C and minerals calcium, potassium and iron in a soluble format. In common parlance, this means that the body which is re-adjusting to the weather change, can get enough immunity and repair support to take care of wear and tear, especially that of the gastrointestinal tract (essentially gut and liver), which needs that extra boost to shift from a fat and carbohydrate-heavy diet to one that is rich in protein for summers. And that’s where the Bael’s cooling properties play a crucial role as it keeps the balance of the Vatta and Kapha in place while the shift happens. Result is that you have this instant calming effect with even just the first few sips”.

Bael pulp
Bael’s sweet, luscious pulp is harvested to make drinks and chutneys that work as remedies for stomach problems.
Photo courtesy CulinaryXpress

However, while Bael is easily one of the most effective summer drinks to top up on, there is a side effect to Bael, which, adds Bhassin, “is a known laxative since ancient times. Too much of the drink without the necessary adjustment in spice and other condiments and it can make your stomach go awry”.  

This may explain the presence of a wide range of Bael pannas or sherbet across the country—from the sweet-spice one in Odisha that is often used to detox during the start of summers (and end of festivities); to the sattu blend in Bihar and even the celebratory tipple in UP during Holi, which has freshly grated coconut and bananas, to the chutneys made in Assam to crank up the taste quotient.

Fascinatingly, most of these recipes, says traditional culinary custodians such as Dr. Geeta Dutt (Founder, A Foodies’ Diary), “are designed in such a way that Bael’s other curative properties come into play. For instance, its low glycemic index when it is combined with sattu or even added to a bajra porridge. As this fibrous sweet fruit comes with loads of Marmelosin, a therapeutically active component of the fruit, it calms down the mind and in doing so, slows down the stress effects that weather change can have on a body”.

No wonder that ancient texts such as the Yajurveda and early Buddhist and Jain literature hail Bael as a natural elixir for instant energy (and health).

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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