Chewing on Mastiha!

In Nov. 2008, at the CIA Napa Worlds of Flavor focused on Mediterranean cuisine, I attended a seminar on Mediterranean spices for American menus. Diana Kochilas was on stage raving about a product I had never heard of called Chios mastiha. Mastiha, I was told, “is a natural antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial sap that only seeps from the evergreen bushes found in the southern part of the Greek island of Chios. It’s a PDO (Protected Designated of Origin) product so don’t be fooled into buying similar sap from similar trees that grow in the next island over—that sap is not real mastiha! If it ain’t from Chios, then it ain’t mastiha.” Kind of like Hatch chiles and Walla Walla onions.

Everyone in the room had been given a 20-gram box and were told it was “worth it’s weigh in gold.” So, naturally, I grabbed two other boxes from the empty seats next to me. I opened one up and started chewing on what I can only describe as pine cone gum. A chewy Retsina (literally chewy … like gum—I am not using chewy in the wine geek way!) and a bit like Pine-Sol, but in a good way! I admit, I didn’t fall in love with the flavor at first, but it grew on me—especially as I began to sample products with mastiha cooked in. Jelly candy, cookies, pasta sauce … it seemed as if mastiha could work in just about any type of dish by simply enhancing it with its unique pine resin flavor. I brought the product home with me, but couldn’t really figure out what to make with it, so it went on the shelf, where it sat quietly for almost a year.

Photo: mastihashop

Flash forward a year and change later and I met Artemis Kohas, a descendant of Chios who has opened up a mastiha shop in NYC. Part of a “chainlet,” the store sells beauty, health and food products all made with mastiha. Artemis gave me a cookbook with over 20 recipes that incorporate mastiha into everything from martinis to tomato sauce, semifreddo and cheesecake. I know all you flavor companies out there are always looking for the next hot flavor or seasoning, something to set you apart from the other retail products or chain menu items … this could be the next hot flavor trend of 2011!

Read Artemis’s blog below, throw in your two cents in the comment section, e-mail Artemis (info@mastihashopny.com) and she will send you a 20-gram sample of “small tears” cooking resin for you to experiment with at home or in your test kitchen:

Chios mastiha, a therapeutic resin from Greece, is an example of holistic synergy. The mastiha shrub, Pistacia lentiscus var. chia, or skinos, has the ability to grow throughout the island of Chios and in many areas of the Mediterranean region. However, it is only in the southern part of Chios that the soil and climate work with the tree to give it the therapeutic properties that distinguish it as Chios mastiha. Chios mastiha is protected by the EU as a PDO known for its antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These health benefits were obvious to the Ancient Greek physicians, who used it for treating stomach disorders, such as ulcers and indigestion. It was the first natural chewing gum and, therefore, an important ingredient in oral hygiene. Recently, many universities have undertaken in-depth studies to better understand the specific healing properties of mastiha. Although many of the studies point to one or two of the resin’s ingredients, a recent study by the University of Warwick showed that the antimicrobial properties of mastiha did not have to do with just one of the resin’s elements working in isolation, but rather that the eighty or so ingredients combine in a unique way to provide better results.

Little has changed in the past millennia with regard to the harvesting of the resin. The mastiha trees are incised with special instruments which cause them to excrete the resinous sap. As they air-dry, the sap solidifies into granules of various shapes and sizes that are known as “tears.”

Mastiha has been used as a spice in cooking as long as it has been used as a healing agent. The traditional Greek kitchen often employs mastiha in breads, pastries, ice creams, custards, loukoumi and taffies. However, younger chefs are using it in all sorts of savory recipes, as its undergoing a culinary renaissance of sorts. These experimental chefs are unleashing its subtle aroma throughout the full spectrum of Greek cuisine. Chios mastiha can be found in many and varied recipes in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Its piney, herbal taste is described as “easily acquired.” Perhaps the most-interesting aspect of this resin is that it can be simultaneously used in cooking as a flavor, and yet equally appropriate after a meal for cleaning the mouth, freshening breath and aiding digestion!

The Cooperative of Mastiha Growers from the island of Chios regulate and protect this product. They created mastihashop 10 years ago as a way to educate the public on its many uses. There are currently 10 mastihashops in Greece, and one each in Cyprus, Jeddah, Paris and New York City.

—Artemis Kohas

About Rachel Zemser