Turkey is unique in several ways; it is popular for its numerous, ancient mosques, exotic cuisine, bustling markets, aromatic coffee, lip-smacking Baklava and of course the legendary Salep. Having lived in the Middle-East for a number of years, I developed a penchant for tasting typical middle-eastern culinary flavours. They are distinctive and delicious and certainly left me eager to explore more of their unique culinary ingredients. This was how I got my first taste of a hot, native beverage that contained Salep (the Turkish beverage itself is called Salep). Salep tends to add a slight sweetness (it’s not as sickly-sweet as sugar), milkiness and a mildly grainy texture to foodstuffs. By the way, Salep in its original form (when it hasn’t been powdered yet) appears translucent and dry; it’s rather pretty to look at. Once it’s powdered, it appears slightly greyish in colour.
Salep is commonly used as a thickening agent and also added for its aromatic and exotic flavour. My Turkish and Lebanese friends love the warm comfort of Salep at the end of a tiring day! Adults and children alike love the taste of Salep! It is popularly used to make a hot nourishing drink as well as a slightly harder and more elastic form of ice-cream. This article will describe the origins of Salep, methods of extraction, health benefits and recipes made with Salep. We will also understand why the production of Salep is under threat and the problems faced by small business vendors in Turkey.
Salep in Native Turkey: History and Origins
As you walk down Turkey’s busy and colourful streets, filled with bustle and cheer, you are likely to come across several cheerful ice-cream vendors dressed in gold-embroidered jackets and matching ‘fez’ (reddish hats worn in Turkey since Ottoman times) head-dress. They ring the bell hanging on their shop booths and immediately plunge their long sticks into a vat and churn the contents with considerable effort. He then jubilantly lifts up a mass of taffy (somewhat the size of a football) and then drops it back into the vat for more stirring as the first customers of the day walk upto the stall. The continuous stirring and whisking (it’s a lot of hard work!) gives the ice-cream its chewy consistency so typical of Salep ice-cream.
Around summer, the villagers living in the Mediterranean, Aegean and the Black Sea regions begin to visit local meadows and fields to scout for the rare orchids whose tubers are dried and ground to produce Salep. Salep is also used to prepare a traditional warm drink that is known by the same name. Salep is a Turkish hot drink that dates back to the times when the Ottoman Empire ruled Turkey.
To define it in simple words, Salep is a foodstuff made of dried tubers of certain kinds of orchids. The dried orchid tubers are freshly ground and used in food. Orchid tubers have been used since ancient times by the Chinese, Grecians and Arabs for various medicinal purposes. Orchid tubers were boiled and fried for various uses.
Salep was originally used as a drug as it is known for promoting several health benefits. But nowadays, it’s used mainly as a foodstuff. It is specially known for its demulcent qualities (ability to soothe inflammation and irritation) and is made of bassorin (a constituent of certain kinds of gum), a little starch and some soluble gum. Salep was mainly used in Turkey and Arabia and the word ‘Salep’ is known to have originated from the Turkish word ‘sahlab’.
By the way, one can buy Salep as a drink at cafes in Turkey or Lebanon or buy it in the powder form. Since Salep is rare and complex to extract, it usually tends to come with a steeper price tag.
Extraction of Salep from Orchids
Salep is produced from certain species of orchids that grow in light forests (olive tree habitats are known to be especially beneficial for the growth of these special orchids) and on Caucasian mountain slopes in Turkey and Europe. Orchid roots are collected at the end of the summer season. The reason for this is that the roots are then filled with maximum nutrients for the next flowering season. At this stage, the seed vessels are full, fleshy and full of starch. The seed vessels are then examined and the plump ones are retained while the shrivelled ones are discarded.
The oblong tubers are generally ½ inch to 1 inch long and are rounded at the lower end and pointed at the upper. Different types of orchids are usually associated with different shapes and textures of tubers. The selected tubers are then immersed in hot, scalding water in order to eliminate the bitter taste that is typically of the starch contained in the seed-vessels. The outer skins are then rubbed off and then the tubers are dried either in an oven or by exposure to sunlight.
The oven is set to a gentle temperature, similar to the heat that we use to bake bread (roughly varies between 370 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit). When you remove the tubers from the oven, they have a translucent appearance which is quite different from their initial milky appearance before baking. The tubers are then left to dry and harden for a few days by exposure to fresh air. At the end of this time, they appear yellowish in colour and are no longer affected by damp. The tubers are then crushed into a powder form before usage. Roughly speaking, you need at least 1,000 to 4,000 tubers in order to produce 1 kilo of dried Salep powder – that’s a lot of orchid tubers for a small amount of Salep. No wonder it’s an expensive ingredient!
Constituents of Salep
Salep is extremely nutritious and is also known for its medicinal qualities. These remarkable attributes are mainly due to its constituents. Salep is made of nearly 48% of mucilage. Mucilage is a gelatinous or viscous polysaccharide (form of starch) generally found in plant roots. It also contains minor amounts of sugar (about 1%), starch (2.7%), nitrogenous substances, phosphates and sulphates. The nutrition levels are so potent that 1 part of Salep powder can be boiled with 50 parts of boiling water. The constituents of Salep possess the ability to bind water so that the orchid can survive during frosts and droughts when water is scarce.
Health and Nutrition Benefits of Salep
Orchid tubers were known for their healing properties as early as 1st century A.D when they were used to soothe swollen lymphatic glands (swelling of lymphatic glands was a prelude to tuberculosis). Salep is also beneficial in case of diarrhoea and fevers and helps soothe bronchitis and colds. In the days of yore, sailors carried Salep with them for long voyages and extended sea-faring in order to stay health during cold, harsh winters. The glucoumannan (a water-soluble, dietary fibre) in Salep imparts healing qualities to the drink. Mixing one part Salep powder to 10 parts cold water and then adding 90 parts boiling water helps form an easily digestive drink that is particularly suited to infants, convalescents and those suffering from bilious fevers. Salep is known for its ability to soothe the gastro-intestinal canal. Salep can also be mixed with water or milk as desired (it is also mixed with wine) and used as a nutritive drink during illness; it is prepared in a similar way to arrowroot. Salep is also believed to empower the heart and ease constipation. In addition, orchid tubers, since ancient times, have been known for their aphrodisiac qualities (think of it as a sort of natural Viagra) and are used to treat erectile dysfunction. Salep is also recommended for its soothing properties and is an excellent restorative.
There are no known side effects of Salep. However, the effect on pregnant and lactating mothers is not known. The only adverse effect that I can think of is that Salep is really pricey – even in Turkey due to the restraint on orchid production and consumption.
Turkey is well known for several delicacies like baklava, kebabs, coffee and they are all delicious! However, my absolute favourite is the hot, milky Salep drink; you should especially try during winter months. Vendors usually trundle along the Salep drink in small aluminium carts and will pour you out a small quantity in a Styrofoam cup. The original Salep drink is sweetened with sugar (this is optional ofcourse), dusted with cinnamon powder and flavoured with orange blossom or rose water. Frankly, in my opinion, it is far more wholesome, tasty and nutritious compared to several other beverages.
As a garnish: You may also be interested to know that Salep can be used as a garnish. It can be mixed with desiccated coconut, cinnamon powder, nuts and raisins.
4 cups milk (whole is preferable)
1 tablespoon Turkish Salep
6 tablespoons sugar (you can replace this with artificial sweetener, if you like. The taste may not be exactly the same but it’s close)
½ teaspoon mastic (an edible gum that has a slightly piny taste)
a. Pour the milk in a saucepan and allow it to heat on medium heat.
b. Remove a little of the warm milk and mix with the mastic and keep it aside.
c. Now add in the Salep powder in very small quantities so that it does not form lumps.
d. Allow the milk in the saucepan to boil and add in the sugar and keep stirring.
e. Just before pouring it out into cups, spoon in the mastic-milk mix that you had kept aside in step (b).
Add a light dusting of cinnamon powder on top and drink hot.
You can also prepare Salep in a slightly different way:
Put 1 litre of milk to boil in a saucepan.
Mix 1 tablespoon starch, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon salep powder in a bowl. Add in a little warm milk and mix this well; when you finish mixing it up, it should look like paste.
Once the milk has boiled, add the paste bit by bit by stirring all the while to avoid lumps. You can also add in a little sugar if you want it sweeter. Instead of cinnamon, you can also add a little bit of vanilla on top (1/2 teaspoon should do the trick) or add nuts and raisins on top as garnish.
Once it cools, you can also bottle it or pour it in a jug and keep it refrigerated for 2-3 days. All you need to do is to simply heat it and enjoy it.
A Delicious Detour to Turkish Salep Ice-Cream
Salep is the native ingredient that gives Turkish ice-cream its unique texture and consistency; it is chewy, harder (compared to conventional ice-cream) and can be cut with a knife. Called ‘Maras Dondurmasi’ in Turkish, the recipe originates from the regions located in Southeast Turkey. Every year, when summer rolls around, the ice-cream business starts booming and Salep is in high demand!
Turkish ice-cream is unique in its texture and flavour and is quite distinctive from conventional ice-cream as we know it. In Turkey, it’s called ‘Dondurma’ in the local language. The texture is elastic, dense and it is chewy to taste and tastes divine due to the exotic flavour of Salep. In fact, it would be correct to describe Turkish ice-cream as gummy and yummy!
We are going to learn how to we can make Turkish ice-cream at home (don’t worry if you do not own an ice-cream making machine – this recipe does not require one).
Time required: Roughly 1 hour
4 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon Salep
1 cup sugar
Combine all the dry ingredients (vanilla powder, Salep and sugar) in a bowl. Warm the milk and add it bit by bit to the dry mixture in the bowl. Keep stirring continuously to avoid lumps. Keep the mixture on low heat for about 30 to 40 minutes until it assumes the consistency of pudding. Transfer it to the freezer for about 40 minutes.
After 30 minutes, take the ice-cream mixture out and scrape off ice-crystals with a fork and whisk the mixture well. Repeat this 4 to 5 times every half an hour. You will notice that the ice-cream is beginning to become elastic and stretchy. Next, allow the ice-cream to set in the freezer for about 5 hours in an airtight container.
You can enjoy it on its own (Turkish ice-cream really doesn’t need a companion dish) or eat it together with hot brownies etc. Personally, I love eating Turkish ice-cream by itself without any distractions from other dishes!
Sustainability and Effects on Local Vendors
Salep is traditionally used as the raw material for a Turkish beverage. However, it is now used to enhance elasticity and hardness in ice-creams. However, due to indiscriminate exportation and usage of the orchids, the Turkish government had banned the export of Salep. In general, according to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), wild orchids are an endangered species due to heavy human harvesting. Almost 80 tons of orchids are used every year. Unfortunately, the demand for these rare orchids does not make sustainable farming a feasible option. Turkey is known for more than 150 species of exotic, tuberous orchids.
Another problem with sustainable farming of orchids for producing Salep is that the wild orchids do not produce the same distinctive flavour as the cultivated ones. This is because wild orchids protect themselves naturally against drought, excessive water and pests. Thus, Salep produced from wild orchids helps impart the special flavour, texture and taste associated with it. In fact, it’s not so easy to extract Salep powder from orchids; it takes 2,000 to 4,000 orchids to produce roughly about 2.2 pounds of Salep (about 1 kilo).
Turkey’s orchid population is under threat not only due to lack of sustainability (the demand is too high), but also due to increased mining, tourism and urbanisation. Traditional orchid farmers are increasingly abandoning orchid farming and moving to urban areas in order to earn a better living. Orchid farming is complex and requires an influx of monetary resources and effort from the government. Dwindling orchid cultivation has a negative impact on the production of Salep. This in turn has resulted in increased prices of Salep which in turn has lead to an increase in ice-cream prices.
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to travel all the way to Turkey to buy Salep anymore! It’s available in certain exclusive food stores in Australia and online too (which is great news for all of us Salep enthusiasts). Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a friend travelling to Turkey or Lebanon, you can request for them to get you some.
Nirupama Naresh is a freelance writer and has lived in the Middle East and Africa for more than two decades. She currently lives in Bangalore, India with her husband and two teenage children.