As winter nights get colder, a white coffee-less latte that smells like a fragrant dessert full of aromas and texture gets prepared in Lebanese homes. It’s a gorgeous drink that is sweet, warm, spicy, creamy, crunchy, chewy and fragrant all at once.
Once considered an aphrodisiac drink, true sahlab based on an increasingly rare orchid, is now rare. What is now found in the market as sahlab is cornstarch with some flavorings but tastes just as good. The word “sahlab” (salep in Turkish) refers to a white, starchy powder ground from the dried roots of wild orchids found in Morocco, Afghanistan, Greece, Cyprus and, most abundantly in Turkey. The Ottomans who ruled the region for four centuries introduced it and it’s been very popular in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria for centuries.
This drink takes its name from the ground orchid roots used to thicken it. The Sahlab powder is also used as a thickening agent to make a traditional ice cream, which has this unique texture and unusual elasticity, giving this warm beverages, puddings and even ice cream a thick, almost fluffy texture with an intoxicating floral scent. The root is rich in protein and calcium, with a thickening quality like cornstarch to make the drink as white and creamy as whole milk. Sahlab powder is difficult to find, as the flower is in danger of extinction and importing true sahlab is illegal. It is thus rare and precious and as a result. The tubers of this Orchis macula are boiled, dried, and then ground to a gray powder that when cooked in milk, makes a creamy drink.
What really makes sahlab stand apart from other beverages such as coffee are the toppings – coconut, pistachios and cinnamon. Sahlab is a desert in a hot cup. It has been known since ancient times as a nutritious food for invalids and as medicine for gastric irritation and has been touted to improve circulation, cure stomach ailments, strengthen bones and teeth and as the tubers are said to resemble fox testicles, it was considered an aphrodisiac.
Sahlab is best served while it is piping hot with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top, which adds this instant fragrance and warmth to this drink. I like to serve it with dried dates, some pistachios and shredded coconut on the side.
“Sahlab” Winter Drink
- 600 mls of full cream milk, plus ¼ a cup extra.
- ½ tsp of good quality vanilla extract liquid or alternatively half a teaspoon of vanilla powder.
- 3 tbs pure finely ground orchid root “sahlab”
- 1 tbs corn starch
- 2 tbs of a granulated raw form of sugar (I like coconut sugar).
- 1 tbs of shredded coconut.
- Cinnamon powder for dusting.
- Pistachio and extra shredded coconut.
- Prepare your serving plate with cups, dates.
- To a saucepan add the milk and stir on low heat till sugar dissolves completely.
- Add vanilla and leave for a min on low heat.
- In a small bowl, mix the Sahlab powder with ¼ cup of milk and stir until dissolved then add the corn flour and stir again to form a smooth paste making sure there are no lumps.
- Add a little bit of the hot milk to the paste and stir, then pour the paste mixture into the saucepan and whisk vigorously on low heat to avoid any lumps, keep whisking until the milk reaches boiling point keep whisking for a couple of seconds.
- The mixture should start to thicken, now turn heat off and add the shredded coconut.
Stir again gently, and immediately pour into prepared cups, dust each cup with cinnamon on top and drink while hot.
Sip and enjoy!