The ground orchid root powder known as sahlab is an ancient ingredient prized throughout the Middle East for its aromatic flavor and starchy ability to thicken drinks and puddings with a floral vanilla sweetness. Suddenly, it's prized in Philadelphia, too. Sahlab is the secret to the panna cotta-like Israeli custard called malabi at Zahav, where pastry chef Camille Cogswell serves it with saffron cookies, persimmon sauce, pistachio, and meringue. It takes a starring role in steaming hot drink form as the "Lebanese chai latte" at Suraya, Fishtown's gorgeous new Middle Eastern market, cafe, and restaurant. The baristas have taken the classic Ottoman drink — made from orchid powder and also usually called sahlab — and given it what barista Maya Ray calls a "Third Wave coffee shop American fusion twist." Chai tea and trendy turmeric get blended in, along with hot milk — either a traditional dairy or almond — and frothed up into a delicious winter sipper that's virtually impossible to resist. Crushed pistachios and rose petals are dusted on top for a finishing Levantine touch. In an intricately textured Turkish mug, it's an evocative modern spin on tradition that's giving the very good Stumptown coffee at this coffee bar some serious competition.
— Craig LaBan
Lebanese chai latte, $5 for a 12 oz. mug at Suraya, 1530 Frankford Ave., 215-302-1900; orchid root malabi custard, $9, Zahav, 237 St. James Pl., 215-625-8800.