Sahlab, salep or sohlob is a winter drink widely consumed in Egypt. This drink has a unique aroma linked to the orchid flour that is used to make it.
What is orchis flour?
The orchid flour, obtained by grinding orchid tubers, is very rare nowadays and gives the sahlab this typical and fragrant taste.
Sahlab comes in the form of thick white cream and is halfway between a pudding and a custard. It is consumed hot or warm, in the morning for breakfast or in the afternoon, accompanied by cinnamon and walnuts.
What is sahlab?
It is found in markets across the Middle East, sold in packets in dehydrated powdered form. Also, it is not uncommon to prepare sahlab with hot water rather than milk. This is the case in Cyprus where it is prepared using boiling water and not milk.
Sahlab is traditionally prepared with orchid flour. Orchid flour is obtained by grinding tubers of orchids, a genus of wild orchids (Orchis mascula). However, nowadays, this Orchis flour is rare and expensive. It is even banned for export due to the overexploitation of wild orchids in Turkey.
This is why it is often replaced by sorghum flour or cornstarch. Commercially available powders are often made with artificial orchid flavor.
The species of Orchis that once made up sahlab is not known with certainty. However, several sources indicate that the variety that was used was probably Orchis Mascula.
How is sahlab consumed?
Sahlab is generally consumed warm or hot. The still warm sahlab preparation is perfumed with orange blossom water, rose water or even geranium water. Some Egyptians prefer to consume a sweeter version of the drink and therefore add sugar.
In Egypt and other countries in the Near East, the traditional version of the sahlab contains finely grated coconut, cinnamon and walnuts.
What is the origin of sahlab?
During Antiquity, the Romans used orchid bulbs to make drinks which they used as an aphrodisiac. These drinks were generally known as satyrion and priapisus. Sahlab was a popular drink in Persia, India, Turkey, Greece on the lands of the Ottoman Empire.
Also, this drink was consumed in England in the 18th and 19th centuries: sahlab was known under the name of saloop.
This drink was popular even before the development of coffee and tea and continued to be offered in English cafés long after the introduction of these drinks to British territory.
Why is it difficult to obtain orchis flour nowadays?
The Kahramanmaraş region in Turkey is known to be a major producer of salep. This region is also known as Salepi Maraş.
In Turkey, 30 tons of tubers of 38 species are harvested each year. Also, it is estimated that it takes between 1,000 and 4,000 tubers to make one kilogram of orchid flour.
The popularity of salep in Turkey has led to a decline in wild orchid populations. As a result, it is illegal to export salep made from Orchis flour.
With the scarcity of certain species and local extinctions, traders harvest wild orchids in Iran, where they are also victims of overexploitation. This overexploitation of wild orchids and their rarity on the market explains the high price of Orchis powder.
What is the etymology of the word sahlab?
Sahlab has traveled around the world and is found, depending on the language, under different names. In Turkey where it is most consumed, it is called salep or sahlep.
In Arabic, the word سحلب (saḥlab) is used. The same word is found in Hebrew: people talk about סַחְלֶבּּ, (saḥlab). In modern Greek, people use the word σαλέπι (salepi) to designate this winter drink. Finally, in Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Bosnian, people call it салеп, or salep.
The word salep originates from the Arabic expression khusa-th-tha’-leb, which means “fox testicles”. This description alludes to the pictorial description of the appearance of double orchid tubers.
This origin is also found in the classical Greek word ὄρχις (órchis), which means “testicle” and “orchid”. Also, the comparison with the testicles explains that this product was considered an aphrodisiac under the Roman Empire and at the time of Ancient Greece.
- 4 teaspoons sahlab (salep) powder (wild orchid powder)
- 2 cups milk
- Sugar to taste
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- In a bowl, mix a quarter of the milk, sugar and sahlab powder.
- In a large non-stick pan, bring the rest of the milk to a boil.
- Add the sahlab and milk mixture, and mix well over a low heat until the drink thickens.
- Serve hot by adding finely chopped walnuts and a pinch of cinnamon on top.
You can replace the sahlab powder with 4 teaspoons of cornstarch and add 3 tablespoons of sugar. Keep the other ingredients without modifying anything else in the recipe.
It is also possible to add coconut and/or crushed pistachios on top.