Emirati entrepreneur Mansoor Al Bastaki remembers when his grandmother would only rely on a resin found exclusively on a Greek island to relieve chest congestion.
Mastic, or Arabic gum (called mastiha in the Middle East), is obtained from the mastic trees (Pistacia lentiscus) found at the southern end of Chios and is known for its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant and antifungal properties.
The sap is sun-dried and sold in the form of powder or crystal droplets (known as the “tears of Chios”), and has for centuries featured on kitchen counters in homes across the region.
Now it has been given a niche spin: Mastihashop, Al Bastaki’s cafe in Dubai, which opened in February, stocks a range of skincare products and confectionery featuring the star ingredient.
The 35-year-old first chanced upon the Mastihashop franchise at an exhibition in Dubai. The brand is from Athens, Greece, and also has stores in New York, Paris and Saudi Arabia.
“I personally love dining out,” says Al Bastaki. “Whenever I travel, I love sitting in cafes, sipping on coffee and trying out new things. Opening Mastihashop is just playing into the passion.”
About 80 per cent of the items sold at the cafe, the first and only Mastihashop branch in the UAE, contain mastic, which is imported from the source in Chios, Greece.
“This resin is popular in the GCC,” says Al Bastaki. “It has been used as natural medicine and in traditional cooking. But using it in skincare products and sweets is also uncommon.”
Al Bastaki says since the resin comes in different forms, it can be used in a variety of ways. The concentrated oil goes into chocolates, for example, while mastic water is added to drinks.
Treats at the cafe include ice cream laced with aromatic mastic (from Dh15 for 300g, depending on the flavour), which provides a texture and taste comparable with liquorice. Chocolate bars (Dh20 each) and luxury chocolates (Dh25 for 100g) are also available. And especially for Ramadan, the cafe will stock dates coated with mastic chocolate.
The shop also stocks jams (Dh20 per pot), shortbread biscuits with almonds and mastic (Dh30 for 120g) and mastic powder (Dh80), which can be used in pastries.
“We also have other unique offerings such as rose- and saffron-flavoured ice creams that Dubai residents find very tasty,” says Al Bastaki. New products and sweets will be added based on demand.
The Mastihashop skincare range, which includes hair and body products, sunscreen, face creams and cosmetics, is backed by research on the resin’s therapeutic properties, highlighted in a 1998 study at the University of Athens. Best-sellers are the day cream (Dh60 for 40ml) and the sunscreen (Dh100 for 150ml).
The downside: mastic is expensive and not easy to acquire.
“One kilogram can cost about Dh1,000 because it isn’t abundantly found,” says Al Bastaki, adding that the few vendors who sell it in the UAE often dupe customers with an inferior-quality product.
“There is another resin with similar taste and smell, called loban, which is grown in Iran and Oman. According to my research about 70 per cent of the mastic sold in the region is not pure Chios mastic. They mix it with loban and sell it at high prices.”
He says buyers can tell the difference by comparing the appearance. “Chios mastic has a crystallised look to it,” he says, explaining that other kinds of mastic are larger and soft. “Besides, the original one will have the Chios seal.”
• Mastihashop is in Aswaaq Building in Jumeirah 1, Al Wasl Road, Dubai. The cafe is open from 10am. For more information, call 04 336 2236