Sahlab - The Winter Drink of the Middle East
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
While Arabic coffee is popular in the Middle East, there is a sensual hot beverage that is just as popular, especially in the winter months, and that drink is called sahlab. A warm and comforting cup of sahlab (also known as salep) is sweet, warm, spicy, creamy, crunchy, chewy and fragrant all at once.
The word sahlab refers to a white starchy powder ground from the dried roots of wild orchids found most abundantly in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire introduced sahlab to the Middle East, where it has been a staple in cafes and street stalls for centuries. The sahlab root powder gives warm beverages and puddings a thick, almost fluffy texture with an intoxicating floral scent.
Sahlab powder is difficult to find as the flower is in danger of extinction–importing true sahlab is illegal. However, combining rose flower water with milk and cornstarch mimics the flavor nd texture of sahlab very well. Rose flower water is relatively inexpensive, easier to find, and the modern supermarket gives us many choices of milks to suit our dietary needs.
For those that are lactose intolerant, you can make sahlab from the multitude of plant milks on the market, like almond, hemp, flax, coconut or cashew varieties. However, it is recommended to use milks with a higher percentage of fat to create that creamy sahlab like beverage.
While most sahlab recipes call for 1 whole cup of sugar, ⅓ cup is plenty to impart a mild sweet flavor. Feel free to use any sugar substitute you wish. What really makes sahlab stand apart from other beverages like lattes or mochas are the toppings. Each mug of sahlab is garnished with coconut, pistachios, and cinnamon, like a drinkable dessert.
My mother’s favorite memory as a child was enjoying a cup of sahlab in a Bethlehem from a Palestinian beverage stall, after attending mass at the Church of Nativity. While most of us might not be able to engage in that authentic experience, you can certainly create your own memories with a homemade customized cup of sahlab from your very own kitchen.
To check out a popular video on how to make Sahlab, click on the video below
Ingredients (Makes 8 small cups or 4 larger cups)
1 tsp rose water or orange blossom water (can use more if you like the flavor)
3 tbsp cornstarch
4 cups milk (either regular or dairy free milk of your choice)
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup coconut
⅓ cup finely chopped Pistachios
Stir 3 Tbsp of cornstarch into 1/2 cup of the milk until dissolved, set aside. Bring the remaining milk and sugar to a boil in a saucepan, then lower to a simmer, and stir to make sure the sugar dissolves . Add the cornstarch mixture to the milk in the saucepan. Simmer for 10 minutes over low heat, stirring constantly to keep lumps from forming. Add the rose water, stir again, and serve in individual small cups. Sprinkle each cup of milk with 1 rounded teaspoon each of pistachios and coconut. Dust with cinnamon and serve immediately.
Blanche Shaheen is the author of the cookbook called “Feast In the Middle East, a Journey of Family and Cuisine” which you can order here: https://secure.mybookorders.com/mbo_index.php?isbn=9781545675113 She is also a journalist, and host of the popular cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond. You can check out her cooking video tutorials at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/