For the last 10 years, it seems the term “superfood” was on everyone’s tongue (and in everyone’s smoothie). But those superfoods? Fruit with deep blue or vibrant red hues, greens with a hearty, leafy texture, or seeds only found deep in some remote village in Peru. Yet there’s one the world has seemingly missed, although its existence has benefitted and been harvested by Greeks for more than 2,500 years, and first mentioned even centuries before by ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galenos.
Mastiha is a sap that drips from the pistacia (or mastic) tree and hails from one part of the Greek island Chios, in the northern Aegean Sea near Turkey. The sap (pronounced: mas-tee-ha and also known as mastic) hardens in the shape of semi-translucent waxy tears that somewhat resemble tiny pieces of rock candy, and it has been used for centuries to aid in digestion, stomach issues, skin problems, and more. The resin is traditionally chewed as a gum to freshen breath, as well.
“Chios mastiha has a long history of being used as the first natural chewing gum, and that alone is interesting,” says Artemis Kohas, founder of mastihashop in New York, who also notes that it was used as a spice for dishes and a natural remedy for ailments. “Add in that the resin comes from one island on the planet, must be hand-cultivated (making it fair trade), is [currently] run by a cooperative, and has many recognitions from UNESCO to the European Medical Association, and you know you can trust it’s good.”
On a recent trip to Santorini to explore that island’s local healthy, age-extending foods—including tomatoes, capers and favas, and crisp white assyrtiko wine—learning about mastiha happened as a fluke. On our first day, our driver took us to the other side of the island for a cooking class at the acclaimed Selene restaurant. With Santorini’s typically windy, hilly roads, we all felt car sick upon arrival. I asked our host if they had fresh ginger, which is known to ease nausea, and instead she pulled out a bottle of chilled mastiha liqueur and poured us each a small glass. After taking just two delicious sips of this herbal anise-flavored serum (and then of course finishing the glass because, why not?), the nausea quickly dissipated to everyone’s quick amazement.
“Mastiha has been proven as a therapeutic agent against various gastric malfunctions, such as gastralgia, dyspepsia, and gastric ulcer,” says Dimitrios Kouretas, PhD. (Dr. Kouretas is an internationally renowned professor of animal physiology-toxicology in the department of biochemistry and biotechnology at Greece’s University of Thessaly, who also trained at Harvard Medical School.)
Along with digestive issues and nausea, mastic gum has also been associated with heart and liver protection, because of its cholesterol-lowering, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory effects. “Mastiha (as a powder) or its extracts (mastic oil or mastic gum) present notable healing properties, [while also] contributing to the effective regeneration of the skin and the composition of collagen,” Dr. Kouretas says.
Mastiha gum can be found all over Greece and the numerous other products—skin care, sunscreen, cookies, jams, dips, oils, and loads more—continue to proliferate retail. The sap and derivatives have also started being used in many restaurants and bars, mostly for the unique pine flavor and healing properties. While it may not be wholly widespread yet, you can find mastiha and mastic gum in small groceries around the U.S., especially in Greek shops.
But that shouldn’t stop you from visiting Greece—isn’t everything always better at the source?
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