The West favours hot chocolate as a warming winter drink, but the Middle East has Sahlab or Salep as the Turks call it. It is a thick drink originally made from ground orchid bulbs, dissolved in milk or water, sweetened with sugar and flavoured with orange blossom or rose water. That is still pretty much how it’s made nowadays, but finding orchid powder has become increasingly difficult given its popularity across the Middle East. This led to the decline of the wild orchid population. Now many instant Sahlab mixes are made with artificial flavouring, and people are replacing the orchid powder with rice powder and starch.
This drink takes me back to my university days in Amman. There was a sweet shop that sold the delicious thick, sweet drink on the street, and I would have at least two cups of the stuff a day, one on my way to university and one on my way back! I was definitely addicted. What makes Sahlab special is the flavour of mastic, or Arabic gum, and rose or orange blossom water. The best part is mixing in the toppings, which varied from shredded coconut, various nuts, raisins and cinnamon. My favourite is coconut, almonds, pistachios and cinnamon!
Sahlab is so delicious that it even reached England. It was really popular in England during the 18th and 19th centuries and was called Saloop. The drink was sold as a cheaper alternative to tea and coffee and was served in a similar way with milk and sugar.
Nowadays, Sahlab is sold all over the Middle East and enjoyed by many in winter. You could probably drink it any time of the year, but in my house, we reserve the pleasure of curling up with a cup for cold gloomy days.
- 12 tbsp powdered milk
- 1 litre water
- 1 cup powdered rice
- 1/2 cup starch
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar (to taste)
- 2 tsp ground mastic
- Cinnamon (to taste)
- Rose or orange blossom water (to taste)
Suggested toppings: pistachios, almonds, raisins, cinnamon, shredded coconut, walnuts
- In a large pot, mix together all the dry ingredients, except for the cinnamon.
- Slowly add the water, making sure to whisk after adding small amounts of water. This will prevent lumps forming.
- Once the ingredients are combined, turn the hob on to a medium heat and heat the mixture until it comes to the boil and thickens. Make sure to continuously whisk the mixture. If it is too thick, add some water or milk, but if it is too thin, allow it to boil longer.
- Once the mixture is off the heat, add the cinnamon and rose or orange blossom water and mix well.
- To serve, pour into cups and top with your desired toppings. Enjoy!