Friday, February 25, 2011

Mastiha: A Greek Delicacy

Imagine being a student of Hippocrates in the 4th century BC, working alongside your teacher to discover natural remedies for common ills. Now you become a lady of the aristocracy in Ancient Rome, beautifying yourself so you can make an impression on your next outing. Transport yourself yet again to the Byzantine city of Constantinople. You are a wealthy merchant, flaunting your wares in the street alongside exotic spices and colorful silks. Your journey ends on the Greek island of Chios during Ottoman rule. You are a petty thief, but now you have gone too far; the sultan is threatening you with execution.

What do all of these people and places have in common? The answer is their relation to mastiha, a sap gathered from lentisk trees, which grow only on the southern part of Chios. This unique good has left its mark on history, especially on the diverse nations surrounding the Mediterranean. Hippocrates studied the medicinal properties of mastiha, while women in ancient Rome used toothpicks from lentisk tree bark to whiten their teeth. At a later point in history, mastiha was a central luxury export from Constantinople during Byzantine times, while it was also valued by the Ottomans. In fact, it was valued to the point where if one was caught stealing it, the penalty was death.
Why was mastiha able to transcend place and time and to touch the lives of so many people? One explanation is its rarity. Chios is the only place on earth where lentisk trees grow, so the supply of mastiha is not abundant. Considering its numerous uses, there has been a great demand for this scarce product. It is sold in its natural form, but also as mastiha oil, chewing gum, mastiha-flavored liqueur, and a spoon sweet dubbed “submarine” in Greek (a thick white paste which is dipped into a glass of water and then eaten). Besides its culinary use, however, mastiha is also an ingredient in cosmetics; soaps and face and body products can be made with mastiha oil. Furthermore, Hippocrates was justified in seeking mastiha’s medicinal properties. It has been proven to aid with stomach ulcers and even to lower cholesterol with regular use.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the fragrant sap was and is such a sought-after good. Every person, no matter his social status, profession, or nationality, could benefit from the properties of Greek mastiha. You can learn more about this product, its uses, and its history at

1 comment:

artemis said...

What a wonderful post! You can purchase Chios Mastiha and the many products made from it online in the US at!