The Greek archipelago of the Aegean sea is the kind of heaven where the sand is paved with the shells of sun-bleached sea urchins and scallop shells. Each island has its own character and, with it, a random blessing. Ikaria, the land of longevity, is home to some of the the oldest people on the planet. Patmos, the isle of John the Apostle, is the putative setting for the Book of Revelation. Chios, covered with the evergreen Pistacia lentiscus, produces the aromatic resin known as mastic, long treasured for its medicinal qualities.
It was Spiros, a spirited tavern owner, who introduced me to it with a pouch of little translucent droplets passed around after dinner. Thinking French Connection I panicked, a stranger in this land, worried it was some post-repast narcotic ritual. To my relief they chewed it instead, calling it mastic, and beckoned me to join. My first impressions were not entirely pleasant, a kind of crystallized balsam that soon became gum-like, but as time passed I noticed it erased the lingering aftertaste of salted roe and garlic yogurt, which is something. The more I chewed the more I began to associate this strange pine flavor with the idea of cleanliness, along with the usual peppermint of toothpastes and mints.
Outside of the Aegean and Middle East, mastic was relatively unknown, until scientists reexamined its antibacterial and antifungal properties, noting its ability to kill H. pylori, linked to duodenal ulcers and stomach cancer. Its use as a digestive supplement caused prices to skyrocket and availability to decrease, but the magic of Chicago runs deep, and cases of pure mastic resin were in full stock at Harvestime Foods on Lawrence avenue, across the street from Hellas Bakery, and the perpetual backgammon contest of Olympus Social Club, where it was never forgotten.
Mastic may belong in pharmacies, but it belongs in the kitchen as well, finessed into desserts to provide the chewy texture of Maraş ice cream or the milk pudding sakızlı muhallebi. Steeping it in a bit of alcohol, as they do in the Aegean, is a convenient way of enjoying its rich flavor, the perfect digestif after a Sunday feast of fish and mezze.
Mastic Liquor (Mastika):
5 grams mastic
Grind the mastic into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle, adding to the vodka. Steep for a week, stirring every couple of days. Strain to remove the mastic residue, reserving it for use in ice cream or as a chewing gum.
Mastic Gum (17 g)
Country of Origin: Greece
$7 at Harvestime Foods
2632 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago, IL 60625