Sahlab: The Middle East’s answer to the latte

Whether it’s ladled from a Bethlehem street vendor’s steaming urn or savoured around a California kitchen table, the holiday drink sahlab tells a story in each sip. The first taste is as warming and floral as its sunlit origins. The second reveals a viscous texture as silky as orchid petals. And with the third comes the first hints of its history, the rich flavours of the Levant and the spices of holiday traditions that reach across religions and stretch back centuries.

In the kitchen of cookbook author Blanche Shaheen, steam drifts from small cups, carrying scents that recall the passing of seasons, late winter orange blossoms and the roses of spring. For Shaheen, sahlab isn’t simply the winter holiday drink her mother taught her to make. It’s also a story of family and the persistence of culture. 

Sahlab, a thick and rich mix of milk, sugar and spices, is a winter drink akin to a latte, and for Palestinian Christians, it has strong ties to the Christmas season. Though Shaheen grew up in California, her family’s stories of the holiday treat are rooted in the streets of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Jesus and thus the holiday. “My mother remembers drinking sahlab in a Palestinian beverage stall after attending mass at the Church of Nativity,” she said. When Shaheen’s mother married and moved to the US in 1970, she brought with her the recipe and tradition.

Shaheen continues that tradition, with a few adjustments. The version her mother sipped as a child in the streets of Bethlehem was made with sahlab powder, a flour made from wild-harvested orchid tubers. Used since Ottoman times as a thickener in desserts and drinks, the powder relies on orchids that now teeter on the brink of extinction, making the ingredient illegal to export and unsustainable to produce.

Shaheen says that she, like many Palestinians in the diaspora, mimics the texture and flavour of sahlab powder with the easier-to-find combination of corn starch (cornflour) and either rose water or orange blossom water. When these ingredients are mixed with milk, sugar and warming spices like cinnamon or cardamom, then topped with pistachios and coconut, it transforms into what Shaheen calls “a drink you can eat.”

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