30
Apr

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Anissa: It has been quite some time since the great Charles Perry wrote a guest post and I was delighted when he suggested mastic, one of my favourite ingredients, except that he is writing about it in the context of savoury cooking which is fascinating.

Charles: With its heady resinous aroma, mastic seems a natural flavoring for sweets. The Greeks  and Turks drink mastic syrup with coffee; they put it in ice cream and Turkish  delight. The Moroccans can’t seem to grind almonds without throwing in a  little mastic.

And yet medieval Arab cooks scarcely ever flavor sweets  with mastic – it was more likely to contribute its aroma to meat dishes. The  greatest mastic fan on record is Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Baghdadi, because  mastic appears in more than half of the 96 red meat recipes in his 1226 book  Kitab al-Tabikh.

Al-Baghdadi went so far as to insist that when you  cook chicken, you must always boil it and then fry it with cinnamon, coriander and mastic before adding any other flavoring. To be sure, not everybody agreed  with him on this, or with his dogmatic assertion that chicken should never be flavored with garlic. Certainly not the Moors of medieval Spain and North  Africa, where a dish called thumiyya was essentially poulet aux 40 gousses d’ail (plus the obligatory medieval spices and ground almonds). In  fact, the Moorish cookbooks scarcely call for mastic at all.

Even in  al-Baghdadi’s book, though, mastic was just one spice among others, usually  appearing alongside the three C’s of medieval Arab cuisine: cumin, coriander  and cinnamon. Its closest approach to a starring role was a dish called masus, which was kid cooked with vinegar, fried celery leaves, mastic and saffron. But when masus sauce was used on lamb or hardboiled eggs,  the three C’s and pepper would show up.

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More typical was the recipe  for roast fish (samak mashwi). It starts with mixing up a typical medieval fish stuffing (6 parts sumac, 5 parts ground walnuts, 3 parts thyme and 1 part crushed garlic – try it some time, it’s great). You sprinkle this with coriander, cinnamon, cumin and mastic before stuffing the fish and roasting it in a tandoor.

So far as I know, the only place in the modern world where mastic is still associated with savory dishes, rather than sweets, is Egypt. Egyptian chicken, duck, rabbit and fish recipes often call for  mastic. With red meat, it seems confined to tripe, lamb shanks, gizzards and  brains.

Where mastic appears, it’s cardamom, rather than the three C’s, that tends to come along for the ride. Half the recipes calling for mastic in Samia Abdennour’s Egyptian Cooking (1984) also include cardamom, and in Usul al-Tahy al-Nazari wal-‘Amali, by Nazira Niqula and Nahiyya ‘Uthman (1965), only two recipes contain mastic but no cardamom.

How do they use it? When you make boiled rabbit or Circassian chicken, Egyptian style, you’re  likely to start out by boiling the meat with onion, mastic and cardamom. A typical fish dish would be samak misabbik abyad: thick tranches fried with cardamom and mastic, then cooked in a flour-thickened sauce and finished off with lemon juice. Shorba akari’ is lamb shanks boiled with mastic, cardamom and lemon juice.

But I don’t find mastic in even one sweet dish in these two books. No idea why. It must just be Egyptian exceptionalism.

Here are a couple of al-Baghdadi’s recipes to choose from. Mamquriyya is about the simplest stew in the book that includes mastic (not counting masus). In Chapter 1, there is a section “On yogurt and what is cooked from it,” seven recipes, all containing mastic (1/7 of the mastic recipes in the book), so there was a sort of yogurt/mastic syndrome, and I’m also including Masliyya for good measure.

Mamquriyya. The way to make it is to cut up fat meat small and throw it in the pot, along with a little salt. Throw on water to cover, then bring it to the boil and remove its scum. When it is nearly done, throw on the spices coriander, cumin, cinnamon, mastic and pepper, and chopped onions. When it is done, throw on one part wine vinegar and two parts murri (soy sauce). Throw a small handful of whole coriander seeds on the pot, sprinkle it with rose water and leave it to grow quiet on the fire, and take it up.

Masliyya. The way to make it is to cut up fat meat and boil it as usual, and remove the scum. When it is done, throw on a handful of chopped onion, a little salt, ground dry coriander, cumin, pepper, sticks of cinnamon and mastic. When its liquid has dried up and the fat appears, take dried whey, pound it fine, throw hot water on it and macerate it well by hand until it becomes like sour yogurt (in appearance) and of the same consistency, then throw it in the pot. Grind a little garlic and throw it in the pot with bunches of fresh mint. Sprinkle some finely ground cinnamon on the surface. Then wipe the sides of the pot with a clean cloth, leave it on the fire awhile to grow quiet and take it up.

Al-Baghdadi has advice on the kind of mastic “that which has large, white, lustrous grains, not pounded, free of dust and dirt.”

Anissa: Al-Baghdadi’s piece of advice on what kind of mastic is interesting because in Lebanon, we prefer the smaller, more transparent drops you see in the top picture whereas he favours the larger grains in the middle picture. In Chios, the island where all of the mastic comes from, they collect and grade mastic in two different types. Here is what I wrote about it in my Savory Baking from the Mediterranean book:

“…mastic, the dried resin that seeps through the bark of the Pistacia lentiscus, an evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean basin. Mastic is harvested in July and August. Gum mastic producers go to the fields very early in the morning and make incisions in the trees for the resin to seep out, a process called kentima. The transparent resin is then collected and rinsed in barrels. After that, it is spread out and left to dry then sorted by hand. There are two kinds of mastic. The clear, tiny crystals which are called ‘dahtilidopetres’, (flintstones) and the larger, spotted soft ones which are called ‘kantiles’ (blisters). The latter is a lesser grade and is normally used for chewing — the resin being a natural chewing gum — while the finer grade is used in cooking.”

You can buy mastic in Middle Eastern shops where it is normally sold in small sachets — it is an expensive ingredient. However, there is a wonderful Greek mastiha shop which I went to in Athens when they had only one shop. They now have branches in New York and I think also in London and Paris. Their packaging is gorgeous and you can buy industrial quantities there as well as all kinds of things flavoured with mastic including ouzo and soap! And don’t worry about buying too much. Mastic lasts forever. I’ve had mine for years and the flavor is still the same.

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mastic-box copy


There is 34 comments on this post


  • Al-Baghdadi might have had the wrong idea about what kind of mastic is best (it wouldn’t be his only wrong-headed idea), but your photos show better mastic than I’ve found in Los Angeles. Mine is distinctly yellowish, more so than in your last photo.
    I recently posted a worked-out recipe for fakhitiyya, an al-Baghdadi recipe for chicken with sumac, walnuts and yogurt, at ZesterDaily.com, but I chickened out (as it were) of including the sumac he called for. In my defense, I was trying to promote the idea of cooking with sumac, and mastic is so very aromatic and exotic it tends to dominate a dish.


  • (Pardon me, I chickened out of including the mastic, not the sumac. I put in plenty of sumac, trust me.)


  • I have been following your blog with great interest and admiration for a very long time and I really enjoyed reading this post about mastiha and its wonderful qualities in savory cooking. In Greece mastiha has been used in that way for centuries.

    In your post you write: “In Chios, the island where most of the mastic comes from…”
    I would like to point out that mastiha is cultivated *only* in the Greek island of Chios and nowhere else in the world. The plant can only survive there and particularly on the southern part of the island because, according to scientists, that part is especially warm (rarely reaching below 0 Celsius at wintertime) and dry, and has submarine volcanic activity.


  • was just reading your zester daily post. very interesting and i agree with you about leaving the mastic out. i just don’t see it working with the sumac. and i have tried one of abdennour’s recipes for stuffed pigeon (with frik and actually, i combined it with a recipe from another book on egyptian cooking) where i used mastic and cardamom to flavour the cooking broth. it was fabulous (if i may say so myself) but i lost the recipe and was never able to replicate it. i didn’t mind so much because the mastic stuck to the bottom of the pan and i had to get rid of the pan. am still thinking about how to use mastic like al-baghdadi and she suggest and not have it stick to the pan 🙂


  • this is interesting magda. i thought the turks also produced mastic. thx for pointing this out and thx for the compliment 🙂


  • ok magda, i corrected the post and i linked to the wikipedia article on pistacia lentiscus which explains about the denomination d’origine controlee, etc.


  • i forgot to say charles that i have large mastic grains that are more yellow than those in the picture but i thought i would feature the paler ones because they fit al-baghdadi’s description 🙂


  • You’re so welcome Anissa. I think it’s a common misconception that Turkey or other Mediterranean countries also produce mastiha.
    I happen to know the details of mastiha because I’m Greek. 🙂

    Thank you!


  • glad you told me. should have checked really but was convinced that chios was where most production was but not only place 🙂


  • They put mastic in Nabulsi cheese, don’t they?


  • yup, also mahlab…


  • yup, also mahlab…


  • There exist travellers and geographers in the period from the 17th to the 19th century who mentioned the production of mastic or products similar to it in Crete, in Milos, Amorgos and Cyprus. According to them those products were not of inferior quality compared to the mastic of the south part of Chios .


  • ha, this is interesting. so, is chios the only place now? or is mastic produced somewhere else as well. in the wikipedia entry it implies that the southern part of chios is where the mastic seeps out of the trees and not elsewhere where the trees are grown. i will ask my turkish friends and will also ask dian farr louis who is an expert on cretan food. mariana, you must have her book. it’s great.


  • Really want to try a recipe with mastic! It’s been sitting unemployed in my kitchen since a NY Times article.


  • i don’t know if you have my savory baking book but there are some nice recipes for breads with mastic. but perhaps you don’t like baking. the medieval recipes sound simple enough 🙂


  • I wonder whether the Turks gather mastic in Cesme, on the peninsula that that is just a couple of miles from Chios. It would have the identical climate.
    Even if they do, Chios has long been the biggest producer, for sure. The Turkish name for Chios is Sakiz, which is the Turkish word for mastic.


  • As always Anissa this is a wonderful entry – and a fascinating discussion on the source(s) of mastic. In novels by Amin Maalouf, and in Louis de Berniere’s *Birds without wings*, Chios always seems to be the place from which protagonists bring back mastic as gifts for their concubines etc!

    Do you or Charles know whether the Al-Baghdadi book exists in translation? there seems to be another kitab al tabikh (by an ibn sayyar al warraq), which has been translated as *Annals of the Caliph’s kitchens*, but this doesn’t look like it’s the same thing…


  • ps I’ve just been checking out the UK site for Mastiha products, and they stock an intriguing Rose Petal yoghurt garniture – no doubt with a masticky flavour. have never come across the like! thanks anissa- i love a posting that spawns so many engrossing internet/bibliographic / retail searches


  • ah sakizli dondurma, my favourite. i always have it at ozgüler in gaziantep. so good.


  • well, you should get charles’ book medieval arab cookery. charles. i don’t know about the other book. charles, can you please tell sura about it. thanks.


  • you are welcome sura. must check out the rose petal garniture. wonder if it is the same as the one we garnish sweets with but ours is made with orange blossom.


  • Anissa,
    I did find Pistachia lentiscus, the mastic tree, just north of Montpellier in France. It was such an attractive tree that I brought home a twig to identify it. (In that same area I found a jujube tree.)


  • how interesting anne. did you take pictures? i love jujubes. i think the season is at the end of the summer. we used to pick them in syria in my aunts orchards. delicious.


  • My translation of al-Baghdadi’s “Kitab al-Tabikh” (13th century) was published by Prospect Books a couple of years ago — it’s on Amazon, or you could go to the Prospect Books website. In case you’re interested, Nazli Pisikin translated my translation into Turkish about 2 years ago, published as “Kitab’ut-Tabih” by Kitapyayinevi, Istanbul. The Turks are interested in al-Baghdadi’s book because it was very influential in Turkey.
    Ibn Sayyar’s “Kitab al-Tabikh” (10th century) has been translated by an Iraqi woman named Nawal Nasrallah, published by EJ Brill.


  • Hi Anissa,

    I absolutely loved this post, and the discussion afterwards. I’d never heard of Mastic before, and I am on quest to cook with 52 new ingredients this year (I blog my weekly efforts at http://www.food-love.com) – Mastic is now most definitely top of the list to try. Do you know anywhere specific in London where I can buy it?

    Thanks so much,

    Hugo


  • any lebanese or turkish shop will have it. i normally go to Zen on Moscow Road. let me know when you’ve cooked with it 🙂


  • Thanks! I will do. 🙂


  • As the owner of mastihashop in New York, I was so thrilled to find this post!

    I will shed some light on the – where mastiha comes from- debate. The Pistacia Lentiscus tree is found throughout the Mediterranean, however the only trees that produce the antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, aromatic mastiha resin are on the southern portion of the island of Chios. Therefore, the European Union has declared mastiha a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product and deemed its proper name as, Chios Mastiha. Further, the trees in the Mastiha Villages of Chios have the technical name Pistacia Lentiscus, var. Chia to distinguish them from the others in the Mediterranean. Hope this helps!

    Also, for those of you looking for mastiha, you can purchase it online from our website – http://www.mastihashopny.com – and, you can tell your local stores that we do have the rights to wholesale them mastiha so you can find it in your local ethnic shop! Be aware that we are the official shop of the Cooperative of Growers from the island of Chios, meaning our packages are guaranteed to be the best food grade quality mastiha – look for the brown seal of the cooperative!

    I am so happy to see so many people interested in this amazing resin!


  • thank you for this information. it definitely helps. i wonder if you can tell me how long mastiha lasts. i bought some from the shop in Athens a few years ago. some of it is a lot paler than the one i had bought previously at the airport in a large box. and will check your online shop.


  • Hi Anissa. I’m happy you found it helpful 🙂 Mastiha technically does not have an expiration date. The resin turns yellow in time because of it’s exposure to the air – it oxidizes. The cooperative is considering coming out with new packaging indicating some sort of expiration date that would be many years from the date of production. I believe this decision will have more to do with EU standards than anything else. I recall my family in Chios having it in the pantry for long periods. Especially since you only need a little bit each time you use it. I will send an update if I hear anything more from the Coop.


  • great. thanks so much artemis.


  • I loved this post. As an Egyptian-American, I only associate use of mastic with fattah. My mom never made the meat without using a piece of mastic. The smell of it reminds me of eating fattah during ramadan! I was very surpised to hear that it is mostly used in sweets throughout the middle east. Thanks for sharing this insightful article. I may have to share it with my readers!


  • as 5th generation mastic gum producer mastic gum can be stored in a refrigeration and it can last up to 4 years even if it turns yellowish the taste and smell is there

    asummingly that the product you have bought is fresh for cooking and baking you can also use mastic oil and mastic aroma suitable for food use

    NOTE PURE MASTIC OIL IS ALWAYS SOLD IN GRAMS – NEVER IN ML

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