Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Mastika.

I do not talk about it frequently on this blog, but every Monday, I go down to Greektown (Chicago) and volunteer at the Hellenic Museum. This exposes me to all sorts of Greek foods and drinks on a regular basis. A lot of people know about stuff like baklava, spanakopita, and ouzo, but there are some very traditional Greek things that no doubt some people avoid because they haven't heard of it. This entry is devoted to one of those things.

Greece- no, Europe- loves a drink/gum/flavoring called mastika. It is so named for being made from mastic ("tooth-gnashing") gum. In Greece, it is frequently served with appetizers (meze) and almond-based desserts. I'm fairly sure that this was what I had as "medicine" in Greece the one time I went there. It's also popular in Romania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.

Mastika is made from mastic gum, which is made of the resin of Pistacia lenticus. P. lenticus is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region. It has been produced since ancient times on the island of Chios in Greece, which is so famous that it has its own variety of mastika. For this reason, "mastic" is often synonymous with "gum." Should you find yourself near an actual mastic shrub, the sap drips off from the tree in "tears," and the result is sold as a yellowish, crystallized droplet. 

Source with more.

Mastika can be described as tasting like anise or licorice. I personally see it as having a taste all its own. If you've ever had Riesen candy, there's a little bit of that flavor, too. It's worrisome that it's 50% alcohol - people with low tolerance, stay away. The tiny medicinal dose given my Greek place likely won't hurt you, but be warned that it's strong stuff and indeed has a flavor.

For all you teetotalers out there, it is possible to find mastic gum by itself. The Hellenic Museum has mastic candies, both hard and gummy like Turkish delight. Mastic itself is fine chewing gum, albeit expensive. It's good for you, sporting antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Try some if you get the chance; traditional Greek food and liquor stores might carry mastika, or, better still, hard candies flavored with the stuff. Have your gum and chew it, too...for hours.

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