Anissa Helou, Muhammarah and Mastic

Last week I was introduced to Muhammarah (a rich Middle Eastern red pepper dip) by Anissa Helou. Who is Anissa? She is a writer, cook, teacher, stylish woman of mystery and unguessable previous guises with hair that cannot go unmentioned - a dazzling, grown up, sophisticated Crystal Tipps come to life.

Of course, I don’t really know Anissa, I made her acquaintance on Twitter and have gleaned a little knowledge of her from her tweets (@anissahelou) and from her website. I know that she is part Syrian part Lebanese and I know that her twitter stream is full of world matters and lively conversation with friends that gives us, in no more than 140 characters at a time, a glimpse of the more rounded person, one who displays generosity, a sense of fun and one who cares for her fellow man. Occasionally it also gives a link to something she has cooked and some instruction on how to follow in her footsteps and that is where this post becomes relevant.

Last week Muhammarah was on the menu with some mastic flavoured crackers to eat alongside it - I couldn’t wait to get started. I had sourced mastic for Stevie Parle’s Chicken, Mastic & Pomegranate Molasses recipe from his recently published Dock Kitchen Cook Book (Anissa gets a credit here too) and I craved more uses for this spice and so jumped at the chance of using it here.

The recipes delivered on their promise. In my house no one stands on a ceremony of politeness where food is concerned - they consider this cook robust enough to take any criticism or suggestions for improvement that spring to mind - and there was not only universal agreement that this was very good but also full understanding that it would be made again.

Neither recipe is difficult or overly demanding, the crackers took a little time, as yeast leavened recipes always will, but dough is always a pleasure to work with. I used strong plain flour in place of the wholemeal/white flour mixture (no wholemeal in the store cupboard) and I toasted the walnuts a little before grinding them for the muhammarah but otherwise the recipe is exactly as Anissa directed. Here are a few pictures of how progress looked along the way.

little dough balls waiting for rolling

crackers rolled, cut and pricked


et ses biscuits salés (du Mastic de Chios)

Thank you Anissa!

“The transition, therefore, is very easy to mastich, which grows upon another prickly shrub of India and Arabia, known by the name of laina. Of mastich as well there are two different kinds; for in Asia and Greece there is also found a herb which puts forth leaves from the root, and bears a thistly head, resembling an apple, and full of seeds. Upon an incision being made in the upper part of this plant drops distil from it, which can hardly be distinguished from the genuine mastich. There is, again, a third sort, found in Pontus, but more like bitumen than anything else. The most esteemed, however, of all these, is the white mastich of Chios, the price of which is twenty denarii per pound, while the black mastich sells at twelve. It is said that the mastich of Chios exudes from the lentisk in the form of a sort of gum: like frankincense, it is adulterated with resin.”

~Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 12.36

Erica x