Eating mastic? No, it’s not a joke. You have probably eaten it already without being aware of the fact. It is related to the famous gluey substance but does not adhere, if anything it helps bring different flavours together. Similarly to the adhesive, it is obtained from the resin of the mastic tree (lentiscus), an evergreen shrub with bright red berries growing extensively on Mediterranean scrubland. It is also the oldest form of chewing-gum known to man and to get hold of some, you have to make an incision on the bark of a tree in mid-summer.
It has an odd consistency and unusual flavour, resinous but not excessively so, with a tiny hint of bitterness to start with, before becoming decidedly refreshing …. so much so that it makes your breath smell sweet and fresh. And that’s not all: it has antiseptic qualities and strengthens the gums (and in an emergency, it can even be used as an impromptu filling for a decayed tooth…).
The name of this rubbery resin derives from the Greek verb for “masticate”. In fact, its most famous variety actually comes from the Greek Island of Chios. These droplets of solidified amber-coloured resin, perfect for idly chomping on, are called “tears of Chios”. In Greece they are also used for aromatizing a digestive liqueur known as Mastiha.
Now, let’s get back to cooking: in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon and Maghreb, mastic is used as an ingredient in many traditional dishes, whether you realize it or not, especially in sweets and desserts. To do so, the resin must first be crushed to powder form (it will become white). Those who have not been able to gather it or do not live in any of the countries mentioned above, may purchase it in tiny bottles in ethnic grocery stores. In Cyprus, at the far end of the Mediterranean and projected towards the Middle East, it is an essential ingredient in soutzoukos, the cylindrical strings made from grape must and stuffed with walnuts or almonds. Mastic adds a unique touch to tahinopita, a sweet bread roll, spread with sesame paste.
In the villages, some women even add it to bread for extra flavour: half a teaspoonful to each kilo of flour. Are you familiar with the famous conical white pudding with crumbled pistachios sprinkled on top, which comes from Lebanon? Ashtalieh: the traditional recipe calls for it to be aromatized with orange flower water, rose water or mastic. And what about Egyptian crème brulée, mehalabia, with its fragrance of mastic and lemon zest. If you examine Egyptian cuisine carefully, you will discover that mastic also finds its way into a number of traditional savoury dishes. Finally, ice-cream, starting from the Turkish version called dondurma: mastic is an ice-cream flavour in its own right. And when at home, why not try this resinous powder in your plain fiordilatte ice-cream?
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