Picture a steep street in Istanbul’s old city, the cobbled ground and colorful wooden houses, masked by a light frosting of snow. Feathery snowflakes continue to fall, taken by the swirling wind on a merry dance, before coming to rest on warm woolen hats. Night is falling and tired workers brace themselves against the icy temperatures as they trudge determinedly home to their crackling stoves; the wafer thin ice crunching beneath their feet. It’s at these times when the call of the salepçi brings cheer to any heart.
This is not a scene from a Dickensian novel, but a reality in many parts of Istanbul. As winter makes itself comfortable, salep peddlers join the chestnut roasters to replace the summer whims of sweetcorn. Their brass samovars rest atop rickety carts that tramp Istanbul’s backstreets in search of cold hands to warm. The thick creamy liquid that is sold topped with a dusting of cinnamon is traditionally made from a mixture of salep flour, milk, water and sugar, sometimes flavored with a little vanilla extract, orange blossom or rose water. It has an instant effect, managing to nourish, warm, and soothe.
The Main Ingredient
Salep flour is made by powdering the dried roots of a type of wild Anatolian mountain orchid (mostly Orchis Ophyrus and Serapias). However, the popularity of maraş dondurmsı, which also contains salep, has caused some species to become endangered making salep an illegal export. With native sweet tooth demands unfaltering, ice cream production continues, but much of what is now purchased as salep in its beverage form is in fact made with cornstarch, with just a little salep flavoring added.
Salep was a popular drink during the Ottoman Empire and is still drunk in many Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, before tea and coffee became the hot beverages of choice, it was also popular in Germany and even England, where it was known as saloop.
The word salep, is thought to derive from the Arabic “khusā al-tha’lab,” meaning fox’s testicles, a name that possibly gave rise to aphrodisiac related folklore. As far back as Roman times there are myths about its powers to bring virility and passion to the drinker. However, in England its popularity was replaced with stigma when it became known as a cure for venereal diseases.
Take a saunter through the masses on Istiklal Caddesi most months of the year and you will most likely hear the clanging of metal on metal as vendors in faux Ottoman outfits amuse tourists as they stretch a mysterious substance. This is maraş dondurması, chewy ice cream that is a particularly Turkish treat. The elasticity in the ice cream comes from salep flour which contains a hydrocolloid that, when worked, takes on its unique texture and results in an ice cream that can be eaten with a knife and fork (and beautifully complements that sticky sweet treat, baklava).
1000 orchids are needed to produce 1 kg of salep flour.
Salep contains glucomannan, which is purported to be good for sore throats and digestion issues.
Make Your Own
If you don’t have access to salep flour (which is difficult to find outside of the Spice Bazaar, or specialty Turkish spice shops known as aktars, and illegal to export), it’s still possible to make a version of this comforting drink with cornstarch, wheat starch, or rice flour.
1 lt milk
10 gr salep
Place the ingredients together in a pan and heat slowly, mixing as it thickens. Top with a dusting of cinnamon and if you like some ground pistachios. Pour into a mug and enjoy this winter warmer. *Measurements courtesy of The Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus.
Where To Drink It
If you don’t want to mix your own, visit one of the following favorites for an authentic treat:
Dondurmacı Ali Usta - The queues to buy ice cream from this Moda joint are infamously long in the summer. Visit in the winter months when there’s less visitors and the salep is just as good as the summer’s offerings. Moda Caddesi No. 264/A, Kadıköy; P: (0216) 414 18 80
Yeniköy Kahvesi - Tucked away up some leafy steps, this café feels like an oasis in the middle of the city, offering a casual and relaxing spot to enjoy a salep with a view of the Bosphorus. Kürkçü Faik Sokak No.4, Yeniköy; P: (0212) 299 38 10