Introduction: A Thought Experiment

For the gastronomically-inclined among us, the most memorable experiences afforded by travel are almost always centered around food. Though considered one of life’s simple pleasures, the exercise of experiencing cultures through food is more than meets the eye — or stomach in this case. Allow me a simple thought exercise. What similarities do a local cafe in the heart of Hamra, Beirut and one on Istiklal Street, Istanbul share in January? There are several answers that may come to mind right away: they are both located in historically vibrant cities, the weather is quite similar in both places during winter, and you are likely to find them packed with acquaintances, friends, family, and lovers enjoying each other’s company. Perhaps less apparent is the menu similarity, not in the least when it comes to sahlab in Beirut and salep in Istanbul; a hot drink that is one of the same, bar a few phonetic differences.

Rising Action: Sahlab In Motion

We often view our eating habits and favorite plates as stable entities; products of a fixed time and place. Espousing such an outlook restricts an otherwise expansive experience of different dishes and culinary practices, one that considers the development of food culture as a historical process transcending geographical borders and limited time frames. Take our protagonist, sahlab, as an example. It was introduced to Lebanon and other countries in the region (viz. Iran, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, etc...) and further (the United Kingdom) by the Ottomans, who ruled the region for an astounding four centuries. An upside of colonial conquest, if you will. What can be nicknamed as “the pseudo hot chocolate of the Middle East” is made of four main components: milk, sugar, rose water, and powdered orchid root, which is the star ingredient that gives the dish its name and thickened, puree-like consistency. Interestingly enough, the sahlab itself does not impart any additional flavor to the dish aside from its thickening properties, which are akin to cornstarch. That said, the original orchid root is predominantly used to prepare the drink, which begs the question “why”? What makes the ingredient special?

For some, the answer lies in the orchid plant’s medicinal benefits, namely its aphrodisiac properties. The literature on the subject dates back to Greek botanists and naturalists, who were fascinated by sahlab’s healing qualities. Although an undoubtedly interesting fact on the powdered plant root, the journey of the ingredient’s persistence goes beyond the medicinal, past the cafes in Beirut and Istanbul, and into the realm of cultural eating practices. Most social habits are learned not intuited, and the situation is no different with our favorite food dishes. The preparation of sahlab the drink, using sahlab the powdered orchid root is a symbolic representation of authenticity; a habit that was passed on by the Ottomans, internalized by the colonies, normalized as part of their food culture, and propagated in the region as such over time. Thus, we have an example of food in motion: a dish that is continuously in flux vis-a-vis its time and place. So let’s move on to the nitty-gritty; how, when, and where is this dessert prepared and enjoyed?

Climax: Sahlab In Preparation

I first tried sahlab at my grandfather’s house in Lebanon many years ago. It was a winter ritual that brought the family together around the fireplace and over cups of the warm drink.

The preparation of the drink is quite simple: mix around a cup of sugar with a tablespoon of sahlab (and according to my grandpa a pinch of miskeh / mastic to make it more delicious). Place around four cups of milk in a saucepan and slowly add the dry ingredients to it until it simmers, always stirring until the mixture thickens. To finish it all off, add around a tablespoon of rose water (a staple in most Lebanese desserts) and voila! you have your drink.

The food purists can have the sweet drink on its own ; the slightly more adventurous can top it off with a pinch of cinnamon for extra color and added depth of flavor; and the most adventurous can go all out with pistachios and raisins as toppings. What will surely unite all three types of eaters is the kaak (crackers with sesame seeds) that most Lebanese enjoy their sahlab with. Who needs spoons anyway?

Whilst most of the sahlab I’ve had has been prepared at home, many Lebanese and Middle Easterners enjoy the drink at local pastry shops, restaurants or from street vendors, where it is sold from brass urns. Watching the self-proclaimed “Sahlab Chef” stir and fold the drink in its large container is an experience in and of itself. This positions the drink as an interesting hybrid in individual and public memory, being part of the “domestic” local cuisine and “streetfood” cultural scene; each affording distinct experiences of the dish. I use the words “drink”, “dish”, and “dessert” interchangeably when describing sahlab due to its easily adaptable identity. It can be a drink enjoyed as coffee is, a breakfast alternative much like oatmeal and porridge (though more delicious and less healthy), or a sweet ending to a three-course meal. The different meanings, symbols, and identities that can be attributed to sahlab make it much more complex and interesting to consider — a true example of food in constant progress.

Conclusion: Changes, Changes

A wonderful byproduct of food in progress is the opportunity to share it with others and spread its influence, which is even more far-reaching thanks to globalization. The demand for sahlab by Lebanese and Middle Eastern expatriates abroad has given rise to a boxed version of the mix that is easy to make. An even better consequence is the chance for re-invention. Many chefs are taking the basic recipe for sahlab and creating new interpretations of the dish that complement or challenge given ideas about the dish. Take Lebanese food blogger Joumana Accad (of Taste of Beirut fame) as an example. Her barazek tuiles and sahlab pudding recipe combines the best of four, sweet dishes : crispy tuiles (baked wafers), the classic pistachio and sesame shortbread-cookie from Syria and Lebanon (barazek), the warm sahlab drink, and dondurma — a chewy Turkish ice cream with a sahlab base. Whether it’s the spirit of changes and new experiences or it is one of embracing old cultural habits, I hope that you can warm yourself up this winter with a sweet cup of sahlab.

And if you find yourself short on conversation, the drink has an interesting story to tell.