In Morocco, meska horra refers to mastic, the hardened resin from the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), a small tree or shrub which is native to Greece and the Mediterranean basin. It’s worth noting that the Moroccan usage of the word meska in reference to mastic is a deviation from the standard Arabic word for mastic, mastekah.
Mastic forms when the mastic tree’s sap hardens into brittle resin droplets know as “tears.” Once dried, the droplets fall to the ground and are collected. You can buy mastic either as droplets or in powder form.
How Mastic (Meska Horra) is Used in Moroccan Cooking
Mastic is imported to Morocco where it’s used in cooking as a stabilizer, binder and flavoring, most commonly as a spice in sweets and pastries. Traditionally mastic was also valued as a natural chewing gum since the resin droplets soften and release a piney flavor when chewed. Hence, chewing gum is also called meska in Morocco. (If you try chewing mastic, be aware that it’s quite sticky.)
Before you add mastic to a recipe, the resin droplets must be finely ground to a powder. The easiest way to do this is to place a few drops of mastic and a tiny amount of granulated sugar in a small bowl, then crush the grains with the back of a spoon. As you crush and break down the mastic, the sugar helps to prevent the sticky resin from clumping or adhering to the spoon. You can add a little more sugar as needed. You want the end result to be quite powdery.
Examples of Moroccan recipes which call for mastic are Sellou and Almond Briouats. Don’t be tempted to use more mastic than what’s specified, or you might end up with an undesirable sticky or gummy texture.
Mastic Compared to Gum Arabic
Mastic is often confused with gum arabic, the hardened sap of the Acacia senegal tree which is common to sub-Sahara Africa as well as Arabia, Egypt and West Asia. The translucent dried droplets of the two look very similar, but mastic has a little more aroma and releases flavor when chewed, while gum arabic is odorless and with very little taste. Small amounts of mastic and gum arabic may often be substituted for each other, keeping in mind that the latter will add no flavor.
Medicinal Uses of Mastic
Mastic has been used in traditional medicine for centuries due to its antifungal and antibacterial properties; it also contains antioxicants. It’s been used to treat eye infections, digestive problems, skin inflammations, blood and lung disorders, coughs, and oral infections. In medieval times it was valued as a breath freshener and teeth whitener, while in India and Persia, it was used to fill dental cavities.
Although many Moroccans continue to use herbs and plants for medicinal or therapeutic purposes, I can’t recall seeing anyone I know using mastic this way. If you know more on this topic, please comment!