sahlab: orchids in my cup

A seasonal specialty in Israel and other parts of the Middle East, sahlab is the quintessential warm winter drink. Written in a variety of ways around the world including sahlep, salep, or sakhleb (and there may be more spelling variations) this creamy wonder is especially popular in Turkey where an abundance of wild orchids grow. Sahlep originated in some form around antiquity; there are references to a related beverage known as satyrion, an aphrodisiac, dating back to Greek and Roman times. Numerous references go on to share that sahlep, along the lines of what is enjoyed today, became popular during the Ottoman Empire. It was during this period that in addition to being touted as an aphrodisiac, sahlab also became appreciated for other medicinal perks.

Genuine sahlab is expensive and hard to find these days. Crafted from the tubers of wild orchids which contains glucomannan, the plant bulbs are prepped and ground into a flour. When added to milk the mixture thickens naturally and is the essence of this drink. Salep itself also has other culinary uses.

A powdery white substance no different than cornstarch (and in fact cornstarch is substituted for the real thing often) it’s often the taste of rose water or orange blossom water that stands out. Despite the exotic sound of orchids in your cup, sahlab is simple to prepare at home. Preparation and toppings may vary, but it’s a wonderful drink to serve, sometimes along with a spoon, on a cold winter day.

Ingredients: (serves 4)
4 cups milk
2 tablespoons sahlep flour (or substitute with cornstarch)
3 tablespoons sugar
1-2 teaspoons rose water (or orange blossom water)

ground cinnamon
dried shredded coconut
chopped pistachios
additional toppings can include: raisins, nutmeg in place of the cinnamon, and toasted chopped walnuts or almond slivers

Mix the cornstarch with 1/2 cup of the milk and set aside. In a pot, bring the remaining milk and sugar to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir constantly so that it doesn’t become lumpy. The mixture essentially should become almost pudding like, thick but drinkable; this is the way sahlab is best enjoyed. Add the rose water and give a final stir. Pour the sahlab into individual cups. Dust with ground cinnamon, sprinkle with the shredded coconut and roasted pistachio pieces. Serve hot and enjoy.

Sahlab can also be enjoyed cold, and is known as mahlabi. A creative twist on the traditional recipe can be found in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s cookbook Jerusalem.

Venture with me to get a taste of sahlab first hand in the Old City of Jerusalem. Kept warm in an ornamental jug and the toppings in beautiful wood carved boxes, it’s an aesthetically inviting and enticing way to enjoy sahlab. For sahlep in Turkey, visit A Wonderful Turkish Beverage which shares a bit of history, a jar of sahlep for sale in a Turkish shop and an old botany print of the orchid plant.

Wherever you may be during winter, hope you have a chance to sip orchids in your cup.

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