There are few foods indigenous to the Middle East that I have left unsampled: From s'hug to sumac, from amba to gamba, from sabich to sufgania, I've had my share of the excellent, mediocre and downright nasty in this culinary constellation. Until a few weeks ago, sahleb remained confined to a self-imposed gastronomical ghetto, cordoned off from my taste buds; and now, I can hardly go a day without my fix of the tasty, viscous brew.
Mining the Internet for some semblance of an authoritative definition for this enigmatic drink resulted in a trove of anecdotal information. For the curious, sahleb originated someplace in the Middle East and has something to do with orchids. One site claims the Latin name for sahleb refers to uninhibited sexual habits; another seconds the "firm belief" in sahleb's aphrodisiacal power, citing as evidence the drink's original Arab name, khusa ath-tha'lab, which means fox testicles.
One thing the World Wide Web agrees on is that this beverage (or dessert, depending on whom you believe) is generally a local custardy delicacy, a hot drink that is more like a porridge, usually made from milk, rice flour, powdered arrowroot and grapes (grapes?!) flavored with coconut, chopped nuts, raisins, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and sometimes chocolate or bananas.
After years of frowning upon the ghastly-looking street libation, I decided, with the urging of a chilly gust of Judean Hills wind, to sample the steaming sahleb wares of a local joint in Jerusalem. For everyone who has walked past the ubiquitous winter stands dotting the urban landscape, the sight is a familiar one: the intimidating silver vat embossed with swirling patterns of arabesque mystique, the overflowing plastic containers bearing the requisite bounty of condiments and the poster that reads: "Hot sahleb."
With the swift familiarity that comes from countless pours, the sahleb-jockey turned the tap and out oozed the piping hot potion, quickly filling a Styrofoam cup. "Ya want the works?" he queried, plastic spoon at the ready in one hand as he shut off the valve with the other. "The works?" I replied, asking more than telling, not knowing what to expect.
In a flash, the sahleb-rista heaped shredded coconut, a mixture of chopped nuts and a blanket of powdered cinnamon into the admixture. He proceeded to leave the spoon in for good measure, leaving me with the decision whether to stir, sip or ladle the searing concoction.
The first reckless slurp scorched the insides of my mouth. The cocktail's elasticity masks its scalding temperature, which is akin to magma, a balmy 1200 centigrade. But the second and third cautious tastes quickly lent meaning to the word ambrosia.
The fact that definitions and recipes for sahleb abound is a testament to how diverse this beverage truly is. Since that first fateful night in Jerusalem, I have sought out the comfort food feeling that comes with a chalice of hot sahleb everywhere I go. In Jerusalem, you can imbibe mediocre, tepid sahleb for NIS 5. Or you can sample a sahleb costing four times as much - a sahleb so unique, and a portion so infinitesimal, that a swanky Jerusalem caf features it prominently as a selection on its dessert menu.
In Jaffa, I endured the late-night ranting of Mahjdi, a self-proclaimed sahleb-sage boasting of the "best sahleb in all of Israel, no the world!" Politely nodding in the icy air, I watched my friends await their sahlebs - nuts, no coconut, easy on the cinnamon - from the warm comfort of our heated car.
As my appreciation for sahleb matures, I find myself hoping the chilly winter months will linger. Everyone knows that the first warm rays of spring will prompt the sons of sahleb to retire their shiny silos for another season. Until then, my informal poll of sahleb stations will continue.
Although I haven't told Mahjdi yet, he doesn't distill the finest sahleb in all of Israel. That privilege goes to a booth in Netanya, on the corner of Herzl and Smilansky streets, blaring Mizrahi music and selling that sweet mucousy libation. Here, you'll find sahleb pegged at the perfect price-point, heated to the ideal temperature, brewed to unmatched flavor and texture and outfitted with a cornucopia of tasty fixings.
So, before the last of the sahleb coagulates for the season, the next time you head out for a hot beverage, cast aside your hankering for a trendy skinny double latte and set your sights on that glimmering vat by the side of the road. At the very least, you will have fought off the cold for just a moment. Then again, you just might find the best damn liquefied fox testicles in all the world!