Assad Abdalla is a sprightly man. Originally from Egypt, he has run Bee Kingdom, a small shop in Bur Dubai that specialises in local honey, for 25 years. He has grown up in the honey business: his father was a bee farmer. It’s safe to say he has honey in his blood, and in copious amounts. ‘My blood sugar is a little high, but I have lots of energy from eating it every day,’ he tells Time Out, adding proudly: ‘Could you guess that I’m 50?’
Abdalla stocks honey from Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Pakistan and the UAE. He receives it in the form of honeycombs, keeps it for six weeks, constantly tests the sugar and humidity levels and then collects it in bottles. Unlike supermarket honey, this stuff is pure.
‘What you get in the shops isn’t honey, it’s sugar,’ he explains. ‘Honey is expensive to harvest and supermarkets can’t afford to sell this stuff for Dhs75 per kilo, so they water it down.’ I have a taste and discover it’s true: his honey is not as sweet as commercial versions. He gives me a spoonful of his most expensive stuff – Emirati honey that sells for Dhs500 a kilo. Flavour-wise, it is to honey what gorgonzola is to cheese; it’s powerful, and though I only sample a tiny amount, I can feel the vapours seeping down my throat.
Abdalla explains that this variety is harvested by small bees up in the mountains, where the humidity, which ages honey faster, is less pronounced. Because of the bees’ diminutive size, the honey isn’t as sweet and they produce less of it. What’s more, they can’t be farmed, meaning this honey is wild and extremely rare. It would be more accurate to describe the men that harvest it as hunters – they have to actively stake out the bees and their booty.
Dhs500 may seem like an extreme price to pay for some sugary syrup (it is the most expensive product in the shop), but Abdalla maintains that many are willing to fork out for the honey’s medical properties: it’s apparently good for the colon, for digestion and for the memory. Also, the mountains where it originates are tucked away a fair distance from the city and its pollutants, meaning the product is fresher and cleaner than most.
‘Honey plays an important role in Arab culture,’ he informs me. ‘In the Qur’an there are many mentions of honey and pollen being used to keep humans healthy, in the same way as ginger and olives. A lot of my customers see me for medical mixtures I make from the honey; they come with a doctor’s prescription.’
Abdalla has honey-based elixirs that he claims can treat almost any ailment. He unscrews a large container of white powder: pollen from palm trees. As I take a whiff, he informs me that the stuff has a very masculine smell. It’s an interesting coincidence – Abdalla claims its medicinal function is to bolster male fertility.
‘So how can you tell if you’re buying good honey?’ I ask. ‘Well, after you eat it, your pee smells like honey…’ he replies. But what if I want a more immediate indication? It all comes down to the smell, he tells me. It should be potent: open the jar and you should be able to detect the honey scent from a good distance.
He gives me some Pakistani honey to take home with me. I can’t comment on its health properties: I don’t know if it will give me more energy or virility, or disinfect me, but I do know that it is some of the most delicious honey I’ve ever tasted. It has character, and in place of a flat sugar-based sweetness is a rich floral undertone. And, of course, I know it’s pure.
Bee Kingdom, Al Rolla Street, Bur Dubai (04 352 2455)