Sachlav: The Hot Chocolate of the Middle East
A mug of warm apple cider, a glass of mulled wine, or a cup of hot chocolate is the perfect thing to take off the chill as the air gets nippy and sometimes coming in from the cold isn’t quite enough to warm us up. But what do Israelis – in a country that historically doesn’t grow cocoa beans and doesn’t cook much with apples or wine – drink when the weather turns (albeit later in the season)?
Sachlav, sahlab, salep, or saloop (depending upon where you are) is the quintessential warm winter drink of the region and is particularly popular in Israel. A thick milk-based drink traditionally made with orchid tubers called sahlab in Arabic, its preparation varies from country to country. Some recipes call for orange blossom or rose water, while others add coconut and cinnamon or nuts and raisins. In Israel it is usually made into a thick but drinkable substance, while in other countries like Turkey, where it is called salep, it can be thickened into a sweet pudding that must be eaten with a spoon.
Sachlav, when it is made in its original form, with actual orchid tubers, has always been considered an aphrodisiac. Its name derives from the Arabic term hasyu al-thalab, or fox testicles. Maimonides even comments that one should drink it “to revive the spirits and to arouse sexual desire,” explains Gil Marks in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
The drink, according to Marks, dates back to the Romans. Though others argue that the orchid plant used to make the drink, which is likely indigenous to the tropics, didn’t arrive in the region until the Middle Ages. Either way, the Medieval Arabs and Turks adopted the culinary tradition. In the 17th century so too did the Germans and English, altering the recipe by replacing the milk with water and calling the beverage saloop. Early colonialists even brought the drink to America. But its popularity died fairly quickly in America and Europe, as its arrival in Europe coincided with that of both tea and coffee.
Though the drink is fairly scarce in Europe now, it remains incredibly beloved in the Middle East. Sold out of metal samovars at outdoor markets to warm shoppers and even in instant packets at supermarkets, it has the same positive associations attached to it as hot chocolate does for kids in the United States. (It’s what Israelis would drink after a snow fight, were snow not a rare event in most of Israel.)
The original orchid tubers have become rare and prohibitively expensive for a simple drink, and have been replaced with thickening agents like corn or potato starch in most modern renditions. Much like hot chocolate, sachlav is easy to prepare at home and its quality is largely dependent upon the quality of the ingredients used to make it. Since its garnishes and flavoring are open to personal interpretation, below is a basic recipe with several options which you can adjust to your preferences.
Adapted from Gil Mark’s “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
4 cups whole milk
½ a cup (or less) cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon or more cinnamon
¼ shredded coconut
chopped toasted almonds, pistachios, or non-salted roasted peanuts
1) Mix ½ cup milk with the cornstarch (or actual sachlav, if you can find it). Mix it well with a fork to avoid clumps.
2) In a pot combine the remaining milk with sugar (you can add more or less sugar depending upon your taste), allow the sugar to dissolve (about five minutes).
3) Add the cornstarch mixture to the warm milk and stir constantly, bringing the mixture to a boil. Then, cook it for two minutes as it thickens.
4) Remove it from the heat and add the vanilla (orange blossom water can be substituted).
5) Into three or four mugs place raisins, and or nuts. Then, pour in the sachlav and top with cinnamon, and or shredded coconut.