(Image credit: Dina Saeed/Alamy)
By Christine Sarkis23rd December 2022
Inside each sip are the rich flavours of the Levant and the spices of holiday traditions that reach across religions and stretch back centuries.
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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Blanche Shaheen’s sahlab is a winter holiday drink her mother taught her to make (Credit: Blanche Shaheen)
“After you smell it and sip it, you can chew it too,” she said, noting that the toppings, which today might also include ingredients like cacao nibs or toffee, lend a crunch and texture to the pudding-like drink. Adaptable and irresistible, variations of sahlab are also popular among people of all faiths in countries across the Middle East such as Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Sahlab has a starring role in the holidays and holds special meaning for Shaheen. “Yes, it’s a drink, but it’s also an identity for us.” As Palestinians in the US, she said, “we’re looking for threads of connection that come from food and the rituals around them.”
Yes, it’s a drink, but it’s also an identity for us
To Shaheen, sahlab embodies Christmas in Bethlehem, where much of her mother’s family still resides. On Christmas at home in California, her family recreates generations of tradition. “We watch the mass streaming on YouTube at the Church of Nativity and drink our sahlab because that’s the closest we can get to Christmas in Bethlehem without actually being there.”
In Bethlehem, sahlab represents a spirit of celebration that transcends religion. “The streets are lively, with bands playing, Christmas trees and decorations, and Muslims celebrating along with Christians,” said Shaheen. “It’s really beautiful to see everyone get together to celebrate and respect each other’s traditions. And sahlab is part of that tradition.”
For cookbook author Blanche Shaheen, sahlab is a story of family and culture (Credit: Blanche Shaheen)
Make your own sahlab this season
By Blanche Shaheen
3 tbsp (26g) corn starch (cornflower)
4 cups (950ml) milk (either regular or dairy-free milk of your choice)
⅓ cup (65g) sugar
1 tsp (5ml) rose water or orange blossom water
⅓ cup (25g) coconut
⅓ cup (40g) finely chopped pistachios
Cinnamon, to taste
- Stir corn starch into ½ cup (120ml) 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 corn starch (cornflower) 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 or orange blossom water, stir again, and serve in individual small cups.
- Sprinkle each cup of milk with one rounded teaspoon each of pistachios and coconut.
- Dust with cinnamon and serve immediately.