A miracle sap from a single Greek island is made into tasty sweets
and therapeutic treats, sold in a tiny shop on the Lower East Side.
Recently, I fell in love. It’s literally sappy, but not the romantic type. Rather the obsessive “have to have it now and have more of it” kind. Thankfully, I won’t be leaving my husband for this precious paramour. I don’t have to. Because my new mania is not another man, it’s mastiha. And anything made with it.
The aromatic resin of the lentisc tree, mastiha (pronounced mahs-TEE-hah), also known as mastic, is cultivated and produced in the southern part of the Greek island of Chios. Since antiquity, mastiha has been prized by Greeks, Turks and Middle Easterners for both its therapeutic and palatable properties. In addition to being a natural antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, it has a heady aroma and a pleasingly piney flavor.
Throughout time, mastiha endured emigration, epidemics, earthquakes and politics aplenty. Demand and prices ebbed and flowed. After a period of healthy growth, a 1972 Iraqi law ended that country’s use of the substance to flavor arak, a liquor similar to ouzo; mastiha lost its best customer and went uncultivated for close to 20 years. Today, thanks to the efforts of the Chios Mastiha Growers Association and the European Union—which in 1998 identified the resin as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product—in tandem with a local young farming movement and the continual and keen interest from chefs and medical practitioners in novel ingredients and cutting-edge cures, the do-all sap is experiencing a welcomed renaissance.
Lucky for New Yorkers, sisters Artemis and Kalliope Kohas have brought this red carpet rebirth to the Lower East Side. In early 2008 the Pennsylvania-born descendants of mastiha village Chians opened MastihaShop on a stretch of Orchard Street appropriately caught between Old World and New. The compact chainlet is one of only 16 stores of its kind in the world, and the only one in the United States. With a unique mix of cosmopolitan comestibles and luxe body-care products, the shop pays homage to mastiha’s do-all disposition.
Mastiha’s original use was as chewing gum—a nice place to begin your acquaintance. The shop stocks a host of great gum flavors, including two types of mint, mandarin, lemon and straight-up mastiha. The sap also stars in a wide assortment of candies and cookies; taste one and you’ll find that after the sweetness passes over your palate, mastiha’s beguiling flavor lingers. The Macedonian halva, plain or coated with chocolate, is popular—and rightfully so—as are Mastiha Sticks: crispy wafer straws filled with mastiha cream. Mastiha Sweet—a traditional taffy-like treat—is dubbed “submarine” when classically served on a spoon submerged in a glass of icecold water; the candy is licked like a lollipop, and the infused water becomes a treat too. Other confections include jelly-like loukoumi, Greek “Turkish delight,” which pairs mastiha with tangerine, lemon or rose; coconut, apricot or pistachio malban, a chewy Middle Eastern candy; bars of milk and dark chocolate; and Lebanese bonbons filled with nuts and nougat.
Nuts and nougat (most, though not all, flavored with mastiha) are in fact a common theme. Sweets made with the duo are sandwiched between sesame seeds and a thin sheet of crackly waffle cookie in individually wrapped pastelli, and also make their way into “pies”—flat discs of nougat between crisp rice-paper-like wafers. The pies—like all the goods in the shop—are beautifully packaged: wrapped in vibrant-colored paper with a sepia-toned image of an enchanting mastiha village scene.
A host of jams and preserves with pretty flavors like baby apple with mastiha and green tea, or quince and myrtle can be enjoyed in both sweet and savory applications. I spoon the lemon preserve over butter-slathered grilled bread, swirl it into Greek yogurt, and serve it atop rosemary lamb chops. Mastiha also makes its way into delicious chutneys, sauces, spreads, olive oils and vinegars, which are tasty on crackers, spooned over roast chicken, stirred into risottos and so on.
(In addition to a fascinating array of foodstuffs, there’s a sumptuous selection of body-care products on offer. With uses that run the gamut from taming troubled tummies, beautifying bad breath and whitening teeth to sprucing up skin and strengthening nails, mastiha makes its way into restorative soaps, shampoos, creams, toothpastes, lip aids and more.)
Pure forms of mastiha are available, too, including essential oil and “tears,” crystallized pieces of mastiha that can be crushed with a mortar and pestle. The Kohas sisters provide free booklets of simple recipes for everything from healing masks and mouthwashes to fresh pastas and pastries.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, you’re certain to find tantalizing treasures at MastihaShop for a sweetie or yourself. And, who knows? Maybe you, too, will fall in love.
Food editor of La Cucina Italiana magazine, Mindy Fox writes articles and cookbooks from her home in Washington Heights. A fervent fan of the foods of the Mediterranean and Middle East, Fox first met mastiha at the Worlds of Flavor conference at the CIA in Napa Valley, and she’s been smitten ever since.