Mastika, or as we know it, mastic, is a resin derived from the Pistacia lentiscus tree. Nuggets of this dried resin are among the first recorded substances chewed by humans for its refreshing flavor, an early predecessor of modern-day chewing gum. (Mastic is the root of the English word “masticate,” which means “to chew.”) It’s sweet, fruity, herbal and very satisfying. To learn more about this ingredient, rarely seen Stateside, we turned to chef Dionsis Liakopoulous of NYC Greek restaurant 1633, who uses mastic to make standout desserts.

Where is mastic found?
Mastika comes from the Greek island of Chios, which has been known as “the island of gum” since the mastic tree was discovered there in 1822.

When is it usually harvested?
Mastic harvest takes place during July to October in a special procedure that takes the sap out of the tree.

what is mastic?
Mastic (mastika) resin sold in packs at a Greek supermarket. (Photo: dullhunk/Flickr.)

Can you give me a little history of the use of mastic in Greek culture?
In Chios, during the Ottoman rule, this ingredient was worth its weight in gold. The penalty for stealing mastic was execution, by order of the sultan. The future of the mastic industry was threatened by a Chios forest fire that destroyed mastic groves in August of 2012.

When the gum is turned into a liquid, it is used in a variety of ways, from bread to dessert. It is also used as what we call a ypovrichio, a “Greek vanilla submarine” or “spoon sweet,” where you put the mastic gum on a spoon, dip it in water, and lick it for flavor like a lollipop.

Is this a flavor most Greek people are familiar with?
For most Greek people, the taste and flavors of mastic are very familiar and remind them of their childhood.

Is there any other fruit/ingredient you could compare it to? How would you describe its flavor?
The flavor reminds me of rose water, but it is hard to describe since it’s so unique.

What are some recipes/products popular today that use mastic?
The mastic ingredient is often used in a bread similar to challah, but sweeter and more aromatic. Mastic liquor is also often chilled and served as a dinner drink. And of course, I use it in the ice cream at 1633.

What inspired you to use it to flavor ice cream?
Back in Athens, I owned a family restaurant called Ypovrichio, where we served mastic as a complimentary dessert (the “spoon sweet” as described above). The first time I used mastic as an ingredient was in a chicken dish that became really popular at my restaurant. I combined mastic liquor with cream, peppers and garlic. At 1633, I  have included mastic in the ice cream to give the people of New York City a taste of my memories from back home in Greece.