The Greek island of Chios (Sakiz in Turkish) lies off the coast of Izmir, directly across the shore of Çesme. For years, there has been a special connection between the island and the port city that surpasses any political barrier between the two countries. It’s a little magical piece of nature, and it’s called Mastic.
Dripping off the trees in Chios is a natural gum called mastic, which is indigenous to the island. Mastic, from the ancient Greek word mastixa, means “gnashing of teeth”. Today, we have the word masticate in English for such a meaning. The Turkish name for gum is “sakiz”, hence the name of the island, Sakiz Adasi. The term falls in line with the actual consistency of the tree gum; a light yellowish sticky, chewy texture with a raw organic flavor, similar to a sort of vanilla taste.
The trees are green and bushy, and their trunks and branches drip of the mastic gum. The Greeks often referred to them as “tears of Chios”, as they invoke the imagery of a weeping tree.
During Ottoman times, mastic was seen as a wealthy piece of trade, gaining the attention of sultans. In 1822, during the Chios Massacre that nearly annihilated the island’s Greek community, the Sultan spared the community within the mastic villages, in exchange for mastic for his harem. Over the generations, Greeks have used the gum for not only culinary purposes, but medicinal, claiming that chewing mastic is good for the mouth and digestive system. Greek companies have gone on to use it in colognes, toothpaste, and lotions. Amongst the Turks, the ingredient made its way in the Ottoman kitchen, being used in desserts such as lokum, dondurma (Turkish ice-cream), and a variety of milky puddings.
Today, many of the coastal towns of Turkey carry mastic products in their shops and groceries, where they are used in a variety of traditional Turkish dishes and desserts. One particular establishment that has made a name for itself is in downtown Izmir; the Greek-owned Sakiz Adasi Café, which caters to its overwhelming number of customers on the coast of Kordon in Alsancak.
Offering a mix of coffees, drink mixes, and desserts, each is particularly accented with the Chios flavor. A unique touch to the Turkish coastline, the Greek café reignites a brotherhood that was extinguished in the Great fire of Smyrna back in 1922. A black stain on the history of the Aegean, the event became a wedge that slammed between the relationship of Greeks and Turks. Fortunately, being from the Mediterranean, the chance of both sides coming together over food and drink was likely. It is the first Greek-owned business in Turkey since 1922, and from the looks of it, may be the first of many. Take a step into the café, relax with a mastic flavored coffee watching the sunset off the coast, and you’ll swear you’re in heaven. The sounds of Greek music playing, intermixed with the voices of the Turkish language, and you’ll be brought back to an era that once was…and is again.