During this past year, I gave up caffeine, including chocolate. (I may be able to have a little chocolate once in a while, but I haven’t had any in about 5 months). So what can I have as an occasional drink to replace a latte or cocoa? Middle Eastern food to the rescue!
When I’m in the mood for a warm, creamy drink, I make some sahlab (سحلب). The word sahlab (salep in Turkish) also refers to the entire genus of orchid plants. Though most people are familiar with the orchid flower, they don’t know that the plant also produces a tuber, much like a small potato. This starchy tuber is used to make sahlab powder, which is then used in some Middle Eastern desserts, including the eponymous one featured in this post. These days, it’s very difficult to find pure sahlab powder; most likely, any powder you come across labeled “sahlab” or “salep” refers to a mix for this drink, rather than just the singular ingredient.
I use the Abido brand of sahlab mix, which consists of sahlab, sugar, and mastic gum, a resin used in food preparation in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. The process of making sahlab is very easy, I use goat milk, though you can use any good quality milk. First, on a low flame, gently warm the milk and some orange blossom water together, roughly a teaspoon or two of the orange blossom water for each cup of milk. Be sure not to let the milk boil. Once the milk has warmed up, add the sahlab mix to your liking. This you’ll have to experiment with, as each brand may have different amounts of sugar and sahlab starch (or other starch), so you’ll want to see how sweet and thick you want your drink to be. Just stir the sahlab mix in until it dissolves and the drink thickens a bit. Then pour into a cup, and sprinkle with some cinnamon if desired.
Sahlab can also be made as a pudding or a cold drink, but we’ll save that for future posts!
What does sahlab taste like? Image a coffee-less latte that smells like the fragrant desserts served to Ottoman sultans—warm, floral, rich, and reminiscent of time long, long, ago.