Honey is a blessed food, mentioned in the Quran and praised often by Nabi Muhammad (saws) for its healing properties. Not to mention, it tastes great too! My mother keeps bees on her farm, and the raw honey she produces has such a fantastic flavor. Whenever my family visits, I beg then to bring along a few bottles that vanish almost as soon as they leave.
In the long interim periods, I used to make do with whatever was on the supermarket shelf. Priced out of the premium Australian and New Zealand raw and organic honeys on the top shelf, I was always surprised to find a large selection of common honey produced in Malaysia, with China and Australia common honey alongside it, the Australia common honey commanding double the price. I’d heard of local Malaysian honey, but I couldn’t see how jungle-gathered honey could come in at the same price as China industrial beekeeping honey, or how there could be such a large and plentiful supply such as to keep a supermarket shelf stocked.
At the same time, I had seen at the open markets and roadsides wild honey for sale in simple glass bottles, but I had been warned that it was likely watered-down or inauthentic and would taste funny. Considering it was half the price of the supermarket stuff, and it seemed less viscous when I tipped the bottle, I figured it must be watered-down and never bought it.
Little did I know the dark secrets that lay beneath…
The honey business is plagued with international intrigue, where foreign hucksters and shady importers sometimes rip off conscientious packers with Chinese honey diluted with cheap sugar syrup or tainted with illegal antibiotics.
There are a dozen amazing stories in that link, with titles like “Don’t let claims on honey labels dupe you” and “Tainted product still slips easily into U.S.” It turns out that honey is one of the least regulated food products on earth, and its trade is caught up in smuggling, adulterating, false marketing and other criminal activity. The FDA doesn’t even have a straight definition of what honey is, and so water and sugar can be added without telling anyone. Honey is often imported from one country, mixed, cut and rebranded as it exports from another. Thus Malaysia turns out to be a major exporter of honey, but it’s all China honey in disguise. That’s why the supermarket China and Malaysia honey looked the same and cost the same: it was the same honey!
If you really want to get your hands on honey the way God intended, the solution is to buy your honey local from people you know and trust. If you’re in Michigan, you know where to go. For me, I took a chance on the anonymous glass-bottled stuff in the open market that had seemed so shady before.
It was clearly a different product. It was darker yet much thinner, and the taste was odd: it had a significant bitter aftertaste. No doubt it was these qualities that had generated the rumors I had heard. But I put it on the breakfast table and my children all thought it was just fine.
Poking around a bit, I’ve learned that the reason wild Malaysian honey looks, tastes and pours different is because it is made by different bees. The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, is used worldwide in commercial honey production. This honey is produced by Apis dorsata, the Rock Bee. The bees build their massive, meter-long hives high up in the Tualang tree (Koompasia excelsa), where it is retrieved by honey gatherers through methods you can scarcely imagine. (pdf) The gatherers scale the 100’+ trees in the middle of the night, distract the bees with a flaming torch, cut down the combs with a wooden knife and haul it all down in a cowhide bucket, all while singing soothing songs to the bees. One day I’ll have to go see it – until then that report is worth reading.