Of all the exotic, aromatic spices in the world, none is quite like Chios Mastiha, the resinous, crystal granules that come from splicing open a particular tree, Pistacia lentiscus, at specific times of the year and letting its sap flow like slow-motion tears to the ground, to be collected, sorted, cleaned, and sold the world over. Chios Mastiha, which most people might know as gum mastic, is a unique, appellation-of-origin product that is produced only on the island of Chios, in the eastern Aegean. It is a spice with a dual personality: Since antiquity it has been renowned for its therapeutic values; recent scientific research has corroborated what Greek folk medicine has always held true, that Chios Mastiha is salutary for all sorts of stomach ailments, including ulcers, and that chewing it (it is, after all, a natural gum) is good for the gums and teeth. Chios Mastiha, of course, is also a spice and has always been used as such, from ancient Greek cooking to modern times. In the traditional Greek kitchen it is a subtle, mysterious addition to breads, pastries, cream-based desserts and puddings, and ice creams. It has long been used to flavor distilled alcoholic beverages. In the contemporary Greek kitchen it is an ingredient that has captured chefs’ imaginations in a big way, in tomato-based sauces, with fish, poultry, lamb, pork and more, in wine sauces, paired with chocolate, lemon, other citrus, berries, and more. Chios Mastiha, in other words, is not only used in the medicine chest but also in the kitchen cupboard, an extremely versatile, unusual, exotic spice that enhances just about everything it seasons.
How Mastiha Is Produced
The Mastiha tree grows in other parts of Greece and the Mediterranean, but it only “cries” in Chios, as the locals sometimes call the slitting-tearing process the tree must undergo in order to produce its resinous spice. Mastiha is produced in 24 specific Mastiha Villages, Mastihohoria, in the southern, coastal area of Chios. The process begins each year in June as workers prepare the ground beneath the trees, clearing it for the harvest. The trees’ trunks are then slit, several times over the next six weeks or so, in such a way that allows the sap to seep out like tear drops, falling to the ground in various sizes, which are then collected. Actual harvesting takes place between early August and mid September. It takes about five years for the Mastiha tree to begin producing resin, and even then, quantities are painstakingly small. One average tree produces about 150 – 200 grams (5 – 7 ounces) of Mastiha a year.
Mastiha Comes In Various Forms
Crystals. Chios Mastiha is sold in many different forms. When used as a spice, it is probably best to buy the crystals, which keep their flavor as all whole spices do, and grind them according to need. The size of the crystals determines the spice’s ultimate use. The smallest crystals, about the size of large lentils, have the least amount of surface area and are hence the driest. These are packed almost exclusively as a spice, which still has to be pounded in a mortar with a pestle or in a spice grinder, for it to be practical in cooking. The small crystals don’t stick together as much as larger ones, and so are conducive to pounding. The medium sized crystals are sold both as a spice and as a natural gum; they are big enough to chew on without sticking to one’s teeth (the small crystals are not) and still small enough to be pounded into granules like ground glass and used in baking and cooking. The large crystals, which are referred to as pita, are often used in the drinks industry, especially in the production of distilled alcoholic beverages. These, with their large surface area, impart the most flavor and are softest and stickiest.
Powder. Mastiha also comes already pounded into a fine powder, which can be substituted in equal amounts with the freshly ground spice. This product is usually cut with malt dextrin (in a ratio of 60% Mastiha-40% malt dextrin), which keeps it from caking up and sticking in the jar. Mastiha powder, whether freshly ground or commercially produced, must be used with care; a small quantity will go a long way.
Essential oil. There are liquid forms of Mastiha, too. The essential oil mastihelaio is extremely potent. A few drops will go a long way in the kitchen.
Mastiha water. There is also distilled Mastiha water, akin to rose and orange blossom water, which has a much more subtle, infusive flavor than the whole crystals, the powder or the essential oil.
Liqueurs. Mastiha-flavored distilled drinks also abound, and these can be used the way one uses other alcoholic beverages in cooking and baking.
Mastiha in The Kitchen
Chios Mastiha is one of the oldest spices known to the Mediterranean, and yet one of the least understood in the modern pantry. In the last decade or so, however, contemporary Greek chefs have rediscovered the spice and have used their creativity to rethink its uses in the kitchen. Many of the dishes in the following pages have been inspired by these newfound uses for such an ancient spice.
Mastiha traditionally was brought out of the cupboard on Christmas and Easter, to be pounded and used as a seasoning in holiday breads and biscuits. In some parts of Greece, mainly in the Aegean, the spice is sometimes used to season sweet cheese fillings for Easter phyllo pastries. In the northern part of the country, it also is used in patisserie, especially in the making of Mastiha-scented cream desserts and an ice cream called kaimaki, which acquires a delicious, chewy texture thanks to the addition of Chios Mastiha.
Food and Ingredients Mastiha Goes Well With
The spice, with its unique, musky, woody, slightly piney, incense-like, exotic flavor can be paired with almost anything, from tomatoes in a hearty sauce, to white wine and lemon in more delicate sauces, to chocolate, with which it goes divinely.
Mastiha pairs well with:
Lemon and other citrus, in desserts and sweet and savory sauces
White, creamlike desserts made with yogurt, whipped cream, mousses, etc.
Dark chocolate, in sauces, in chocolate-covered fruits (try it with poached pears)
Dessert sauces, such as zabaglione, crème anglaise, pastry cream
In ice cream, especially vanilla and dark chocolate ice cream
In sweet biscuits and biscotti type confections
In breads, both sweet and savory, especially with spices like Nigella and other seeds
Savory white sauces, from Greek avgolemono to cream and bechamel-type sauces
In aromatic olive oil. This makes for an extremely versatile condiment, over grilled and sauteed fish, seafood, meats, poultry
Nuts, especially in crusts for various meats and fish. It goes especially well with pistachios and pine nuts.
Working With Mastiha: How To Pound The Crystals
The crystals need to be pounded in a mortar or pestle or spice grinder, but always with the addition of either a little salt (for savory foods) or a little sugar (for sweets). Half a teaspoon of ground Mastiha, whether commercial or freshly ground, usually goes a pretty long way in cooking and baking.
How Much To Use
The best guide for using Chios Mastiha in recipes is your own palate. Because the spice is so robust, a small quantity will go a long way. It is better to start with little and to increase the amount as desired rather than to add too much at the start of a recipe and then be unable to retract it. Too much can leave a bitter aftertaste.
Homemade Mastiha-Scented Olive Oil
1 packet (about a heaping tablespoon) small or medium-sized Mastiha crystals
250 ml (1 ¼ cups) extra-virgin Greek olive oil
Heat 80 ml (about ¾ cup) of olive oil and the Chios Mastiha in a nonstick skillet over low heat. Pour into a bottle, let cool, and add the remaining olive oil. Use immediately or store in a cool, dark place. Shake before using.