“ Mastihareminds me of my childhood, and how I would lick the sap from my fingers after I climbed the trees,” reminisces Chef Nick Danellis of Ammos restaurant in New York City. Like others who grew up around the Mediterranean, scaling the mastiha (pronounced mas-tik-a) tree and tasting its sticky-sweet resin, Danellis also recalls enjoying it at home in his native town of Athens. “When I was a child, my mother would mix the mastiha with sugar to create a very thick syrup. We would coat a spoon with the mixture and dip it in a glass of water, and then lick the spoon. Dip and lick again.” Like sucking on a lollipop, he and his siblings would repeat dunking and licking until the spoon was clean. “Then we would drink the water,” the chefs adds, “which tasted like a sweet-minty beverage. It was considered a special treat . . . My mother also used mastiha in several recipes, especially desserts.”
Although the tree grows in numerous countries, including Turkey and Israel, the Chios Mastiha Growers Association (CMGA) contends that the mastiha from Chios, Greece, is one of the finest, purest, and most unique examples of the sweet stuff. Growers there use a sharp, pointed tool to incise the trunk and branches of the tree, causing a thick, clear liquid to ooze from beneath the bark. Within a couple of weeks, the liquid hardens into crystalline “tears” and drops to the ground where it is collected and processed into various forms. Commercially packaged mastiha crystals, also known as “mastic” in the United States and Europe, are available in three sizes; small (larger than a peppercorn), medium (the size of a split pea), and large (about the size of a fresh pea). Package options include 10-, 20-, 100-, and 500-gram boxes, 10-gram plastic bags, and small tins. Price varies, depending on size, but a 20-gram box generally wholesales for $4.50) Mastiha oil, which is considerably stronger-tasting than the crystals, is available in 5-, 10-, 50-, 100-, and 500-gram bottles; a powdered form, ground specifically for culinary use, is available in 50-gram plastic containers.
Danellis uses mastiha in several recipes served at Ammos, where it lends a unique flavor—not just sweetness. “I make a Chocolate and Mastiha Mousse as a dessert special,” the chef reports. “But, it is also great in entrées, especially seafood dishes. We incorporate it into our Grilled Kalamari recipe.” Guests at Ammos also can experience subtle mastiha flavor in Tsoureki, the traditional Greek Easter bread made with hardboiled eggs embedded in the braided dough prior to baking. The chef makes a Tsoureki Bread Pudding with Figs using the mastiha oil. “We serve it with mastiha-flavored whipped cream,” Danellis explains, “and drizzle the dish with Greek thyme honey.” According to the chef, only a small amount of mastiha oil is necessary to impart its unique flavor; too much can result in an overpowering, nearly bitter taste. Danellis suggests that chefs working with the oil for the first time use the product in amounts similar to, and instead of, pure vanilla extract.
The CMGA encourages chefs to be liberal in experimenting with crystallized mastiha, as its sweetness and minty notes can pair well with citrus, in dessert and savory sauces, chocolate, pastry creams, ice cream, biscotti, nut recipes, and in meat and poultry dishes. For more information on using and sourcing mastiha, contact the association at firstname.lastname@example.org.