Whether it is sipped at a kitchen table in California or from a heated urn by a street vendor in Bethlehem, Sahlab has the rich flavors of the Levant and the spices of joyful rites that crossed all religions centuries ago.

The winter beverage Sahlab is closely related to Christmas for Palestinian Christians. It is similar to a latte made from a thick and rich mixture of milk, sugar, and spices. With a few adjustments, cookbook author Blanche Shaheen continues to practice this tradition. The version her mother drank on the Bethlehem streets as a child was made with sahlab powder, a flour made from wild-harvested orchid tubers. The powder, which has been used as a thickener in beverages and desserts since the Ottoman era, is illegal to export, and its production is unsustainable because it depends on orchids, a species that is in danger of going extinct. Shaheen uses corn starch (corn flour) and either rose water or orange blossom water to copy the texture and flavor of Sahlab powder, like many other Palestinians.

Sahlab in Bethlehem represents a welcoming, festive atmosphere. For Shaheen, it symbolizes Christmas in Bethlehem, where the majority of her mother’s family still resides.