On a Sweet Trail

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Nagaland is one of the highest producers of honey in India. Celebrity chef Kunal Kapur gets a taste of the most exotic varieties found in the state

It’s not for nothing that honey is termed liquid gold around the world. Sweeter than sugar and far, far healthier, it has some known and some rather surprising benefits, although the magic it creates on the palate is paramount. If you travel to Nagaland you’ll discover that there’s even more to this beautiful substance than you could have imagined – like varieties in colours, flavours and textures you may never have seen before. I have always believed that travelling is an investment you make in unforgettable and invaluable experiences, and my experience of rediscovering honey at the Nagaland Beekeeping and Honey Mission in Dimapur is truly unforgettable.

This was my first trip to Nagaland, a place I had heard a lot about but never gotten around to visiting. An early-morning Air India flight took me there from Delhi, and the Nagaland Beekeeping and Honey Mission was my very first stop. A 20-minute drive from the Dimapur airport, this government-run organisation cultivates honey and also educates locals on the best practices for honeybee rearing. I had been promised by a friend that coming here would give me a taste of authentic Naga honey, which is nothing like any honey I’ve tasted before, and he was right. I must admit that up until that point, I had been in awe of honey from around the world, especially Yuzu honey from Korea and Manuka honey from Australia. But one little taste of local Naga honey, and I was a changed man. What I was tasting altered the very definition of honey in my mind. Here are the four varieties of Naga honey that blew me away:

Rock Bee Honey

The honey of the rock bee is viscous, dark – almost black in colour, in fact – intense, lightly smoky and has a bitter aftertaste. Its bitter-sweet flavour is its primary identifier. A variety of wild honey, it is not cultivated but sourced directly from bee hives hanging from rocks or cliffs in Nagaland. The bees visit cane flowers and wild forest flowers for nectar and it is this nectar that gives the honey its taste. Usually, the hives are fairly high up along the slopes of cliffs, making them extremely difficult to reach. The locals set up temporary bamboo structures to climb and extract the honey in true daredevil spirit. I recommend rock bee honey for basting roasts and even preparing cocktails.

Apis Cerana

Honey of the Naga Stingless Bee

My favourite variety of honey now is from the Naga stingless bee. This is a tiny bee that has a small sting which is not useful at all for its defence. The honey produced by it is quite runny and, to my great surprise, quite sour to taste. The natural sourness is accompanied by a hint of sweetness, though, and it is one of the most expensive varieties of Naga honey. I found it very addictive – I could not stop at just one spoon! My recommendation: use this honey in salads as a dressing with some seasoning, or use it to make dips.

Honey of Apis Cerana

Apis cerana or the common honeybee is a kind of bee native to Nagaland and the production of its honey is quite high. This small bee is known to be aggressive and is widely farmed throughout the state. A light amber in shade, its honey has a mildly flowery aftertaste and is closer in flavour to the common bottled honey most of us are familiar with, albeit a lot less sweet. This particular variety can be used as a substitute for your daily breakfast-table honey.

Landscape of Nagaland

Black Honey

Also from the Apis cerana honeybee, this honey – true to its name – is black owing to the bee’s choice of flowers for nectar. It has a slightly woody flavour and is the kind of honey I would love to baste meats with for a barbecue.

The author is a celebrity chef and the views expressed in this article are his own

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