Whether it is served from a heated urn by a Bethlehem street seller or enjoyed at a house table in California, each sip is infused with the rich flavors of the Levant and the spices of festive customs that cut across all religions and date back hundreds of years.

Sahlab is more than just the festive winter beverage Blanche Shaheen learned to prepare from her mother, according to the cookbook author. Additionally, it is a tale about family and the enduring power of culture. Sahlab, a winter beverage similar to a latte made from a thick and rich mixture of milk, sugar, and spices, is closely associated with Christmas for Palestinian Christians. Shaheen maintains this custom with a few modifications. Sahlab powder, a flour produced from wild-harvested orchid tubers, was used to make the version her mother drank as a child in the Bethlehem streets. Since the powder has been used as a thickener in drinks and sweets since the Ottoman era, it is prohibited to export and unsustainable to make since it depends on orchids, which are currently in danger of going extinct. Like many Palestinians in the diaspora, Shaheen uses a more accessible mixture of corn starch (corn flour) and either rose water or orange blossom water to imitate the texture and flavor of sahlab powder.

Shaheen believes that sahlab represents Christmas in Bethlehem, where a large portion of her mother’s family still dwells. In Bethlehem, sahlab stands for an inclusive atmosphere of festivity that transcends beliefs. “It’s really beautiful to see everyone get together to celebrate and respect each other’s traditions. And sahlab is part of that tradition.”