Saturday, 2 January 2016

Tasting Jerusalem #31 – Sahlab

Dee – December 2015’s featured ingredient, Sahlab, represented an excursion beyond the pages of the Jerusalem recipe book and, it turned out, an excursion in the physical sense too.

Sahlab, also called Salep, is a type of flour made from dried Orchis root.  Orchis is a plant similar to an orchid and found from North West Africa, Southern Europe to Central Asia.  It has a tuber-like root which is dried and milled to make the sahlab.  It is used as a thickening agent for puddings and drinks, and also appears in a Turkish variant of ice cream.  It is most commonly found as a drink though, which is also called Sahlab, and that was how we chose to represent it in this blog entry.

The Sahlab drink has often been referred to as an alternative to hot chocolate, and it is enjoyed throughout the Levant region as a winter warmer, making it an ideal choice of ingredient for a cold, wet December.  The sahlab powder is stirred into hot milk and sweetened with sugar and garnished with ground cinnamon.  It is often pictured served in a small glass with a cinnamon stick, as can be seen on the box in the photo below.

Initially, we faced quite a challenge sourcing it.  None of the groceries or supermarkets stocked it and the only place that we could find it initially was on line.  We were too impatient to order it though, so were considering using cornflour as a substitute.  It turned out that this wouldn’t have been totally inauthentic, as according to Wikipedia, a 50/50 mixture of rice flour and cornflour is used in Israel as a cheaper alternative to true sahlab.

While we were planning our sahlab recipe, we decided to take part in the Veganuary initiative (read about that here), which meant that more tweaking and experimentation would be required.  I wasn’t thrown too much by this though, as I was confident that soya milk or almond milk would be interesting to try out.

However, it was all-change again a couple of days ago, when we found the elusive sahlab in a cash and carry store while seeking out some vegan friendly ingredients to start cooking with.  The box contained 200g of sahlab powder which was ready sweetened.  All that was required was hot milk and the cinnamon.

We still had quite a challenge in front of us, as not only did we have to use an ingredient we’d never seen before to make something we’d never tasted, we also had to make sure that it was vegan.  We did it though and while we can’t claim that it is something that a Jerusalemite would be familiar with, it is our attempt to retain the spirit of the original recipe using our existing knowledge, experience and resources, and commitments that we made before the start of January. 

There were instructions on the back of the box on how to prepare the drink, so we used those as a starting point.  Below are the details of how we made it;

Ingredients for four servings;
300ml Unsweetened Almond Milk
2 Dessertspoons Instant Sahlab
Pinch of ground Cinnamon

Mix the Sahlab into the milk and turn the heat on.  Keep stirring the mixture to prevent lumps forming. 
Heat the mixture until it is just about to boil, then remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.
When the mixture is still warm, pour it into small cups and serve each garnished with a pinch of cinnamon.

We drank it from small espresso cups, which were the closest we could get to the small decorated cups that we imagine seeing in Jerusalem’s coffee shops.

After all the chopping and changing of the recipe, not to mention searching for the sahlab itself, it was a very simple drink to prepare.  The cinnamon turned out to be much more than just a garnish.  It added a sweet spiciness which was pleasant to taste alongside the slight earthiness of the almond milk.  The comments were right: It was a great winter warmer.
The next day we had enough left over for a second serving, so we decided to try it without heating it up.  I was more enthusiastic about it than Jay, who preferred the hot version, but both of us enjoyed both the hot and cold versions.
Jay was keen to try it again with added flavourings: Possibly orange blossom water, which we have seen in a recipe in one of our books, but also pureed fruit or pistachio and dried rose petals.

We wanted something to eat alongside our Sahlab drink, and the ideal recipe appeared just before Christmas when Beth from the Tasting Jerusalem group shared a recipe for Rose, Cardamom and Pistachio Snowballs (click here for details).  These were similar to the Graybeh cookies which we made for Tasting Jerusalem #3 back in February (click here for details) but looked too good a good match for the Sahlab to pass. 
The only substitution that was needed to make the recipe vegan-friendly was vegetable margarine for butter.  We were lucky to already have some vegan-friendly icing/confectioner’s sugar.
The dough proved easier to work with than for the Graybeh, with no stickiness to contend with.
Ten minutes in a preheated oven was all that was needed to give the cookies a light brown colour and filled the kitchen with the lovely aroma of freshly baked cookies.
After the cookies had been left to cool they were given a coating of icing/confectioner’s sugar, which gave them their ‘snowball’ title.
The finished cookies were soft and crumbly but without the chewiness of other cookies.  The pistachios, which we had toasted before adding to the mix, were the main flavour and added small nutty elements to each bite.
When served with the Sahlab they made a great finish to our meal.
The quantities listed in the recipe yielded twelve cookies.  They didn’t last long.

“Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ebury Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to  following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook Page or joining our Google+ Community and finally checking out all of our groups’ dishes on Pinterest

(Please note: I have listed the UK publisher and have linked to the UK Amazon site.  The US details are provided on the web site)


  1. What a great start to the year - love that you found the sahlab and made my cookies! I have another package of sahlab to try that claims to have the real stuff in the mix. We will announce a new ingredient soon but are getting started in 2016 a little bit slow and still working on the Dec warm drink to match this cold weather!

    1. Thank you. I'm glad we made the cookies too; they were yummy :-) I'd definitely be interested to see what the other packs turn out like. The one we bought just had sahlab and sugar in it. There's plenty left, so I think we'll enjoy some this evening.