Mastic (Greek:μαστίχα)(Pistacia lentiscus) is an evergreen shrub or small tree of the Pistacio family growing up to tall which is cultivated for its aromatic resin, mainly on the Greek island of Chios. It is native throughout the Mediterranean region, from Morocco and Iberia in the west through southern France and Turkey to Syria and Israel / Palestine in the east. It is also native to the Canary Islands. The word mastic derives either from a Phoenician word or from the Greek verb mastichein ("to gnash the teeth", origin of the English word masticate) or massein ("to chew").
For reasons that are not entirely understood, only the trees in the southern part of the island of Chios produce the distinctively flavoured resin. The island's mastic production is controlled by a co-operative of medieval villages, collectively known as the 'Mastichochoria'(Μαστιχοχώρια), which are also located in the southern part of Chios.
Mastic resin is a relatively expensive kind of spice, that has been used, principally, as a chewing gum, for at least 2,400 years. The flavour can be described as a strong slightly smoky, resiny aroma and can be an acquired taste.
Some scholars identify the bakha בכא mentioned in the Bible - as in the Valley of Baca (עמק הבכא) of Psalm 84 - with the mastic plant. The word bakha appears to be derived from the Hebrew word for crying or weeping, and is thought to refer to the "tears" of resin secreted by the mastic plant, along with a sad weeping noise which occurs when the plant is walked on and branches are broken. The Valley of Baca is thought to be a valley near Jerusalem that was covered with low mastic shrubbery, much like some hillsides in northern Israel today. In an additional biblical reference, King David receives divine counsel to place himself opposite the Philistines coming up the Valley of Rephaim, southwest of Jerusalem, such that the sound of the "sound of walking on the tops of the bakha shrubs" (קול צעדה בראשי הבכאים) signals the moment to attack. (II Samuel V: 22-24)
Mastic is known to have been popular in Roman times when children chewed it, and in Medieval times it was highly prized for the Sultan's harem both as a breath freshener and for cosmetics. It was the Sultan's privilege to chew mastic, and it was considered to have healing properties. The spice's use was widened when Chios became part of the Ottoman Empire, and it remains popular in North Africa and the Near East.
Within the European Union, Chios Mastic production is granted protected designation of origin (PDO) and a protected geographical indication (PGI) name. The 'Mastichohoria' (mastic-producing villages) are located in the southern part of Chios.
As a spice, it continues to be used in Greece to flavour spirits and liquors (such as Chios's native drinks of Mastichato & mastica), chewing gum and a number of cakes, pastries, spoon sweets and desserts. Mastic resin is a key ingredient in Dondurma (Turkish ice cream), and Turkish puddings granting those confections its unusual texture and bright whiteness. In Lebanon and Egypt, the spice is used to flavour many sauces, ranging from soups to meats to desserts, while in Morocco smoke from the resin is used to flavour water. Recently, a Mastic flavoured fizzy drink has also been launched.
As well as its culinary uses, Mastic continues to be used for its gum and medicinal properties. The resin is used as a primary ingredient in the production of cosmetics such as toothpaste, lotions for the hair and skin, and perfumes.
In ancient Jewish halachic sources, it is indicated that chewing mastic was a treatment for bad breath. "Mastic is not chewed on shabbat. When (is it permissible to chew mastic on shabbat)? When the intention is medicinal. If it is against a bad odor, it is permissible." (תוספתא שבת פי"ב (יג) ח, כי"ע)
In recent years, university researchers have provided the scientific evidence for the medicinal properties of mastic. A 1985 study by the University of Thessaloniki and by the Meikai University discovered that mastic can reduce bacterial plaque in the mouth by 41.5 percent. A 1998 study by the University of Athens found that mastic oil has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Another 1998 University of Nottingham study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, claims that mastic can heal peptic ulcers by killing Helicobacter pylori, which causes peptic ulcers, gastritis, and duodenitis. Some in vivo studies have shown that mastic gum has no effect on Helicobacter pylori when taken for short periods of time. However a recent and more extensive study showed that mastic gum reduced Helicobacter pylori populations after an insoluble and sticky polymer (poly-β-myrcene) constituent of mastic gum was removed and taken for a longer period of time. Further analysis showed the acid fraction was the most active antibacterial extract, and the most active pure compound was isomasticadienolic acid..
The Mastic tree has been introduced into Mexico as an ornamental plant, where it is very prized and fully naturalized. The trees are grown mainly in suburban areas in semi-arid zones and remain undamaged although the regime of summer rainfall is contrary to its original Mediterranean climate.