On the first floor of the dilapidated Balkapan Han near Istanbul’s Egyptian Bazaar, the Kadem brothers sit at two separate tables answering phones and drinking their afternoon tea. In the window are strings of dried orchid roots festooned decoratively above a few sacks of loose tubers. Kadem Salepçilik has been a wholesaler of salep since 1960.
When temperatures drop in Istanbul, salep, a winter favourite among locals made of ground orchid root, makes its seasonal appearance in cafés, street carts and Turkish kitchens. Yet the story of salep, a hot drink with variations like ‘sahlab’ shared among many Arab countries, seems to be facing a sort of conundrum, wedged between its rich Ottoman past, a looming orchid population problem and the introduction of artificial salep drinks.
‘You can distinguish pure salep powder from the artificial kinds during the preparation process,’ says Cemal Kadem. ‘Pure ground orchid root takes around 40 minutes to cook while the supermarket kind only takes a few minutes.’ As for the preparation, one tablespoon of salep, two tablespoons of sugar and two cups of milk is the recommended recipe.
As Kadem opens one of the large packets of salep powder with the company’s signature red logo, a bold smell of dried sweet flowers meets the air. ‘The culture of drinking salep was very popular in the Ottoman Empire but it has definitely faded,’ he says.
Tracing the origins of Ottoman cuisine and its ingredients is almost impossible given that the empire’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim populations swapped recipes for over six centuries. With Constantinople’s position as a centre of trade, and a multitude of foreign imports arriving on its shores, the mystery surrounding salep’s roots is one constantly up for debate.
Despite the lack of historical certainty, salep was widely used in the well-stocked palace kitchens of the Ottoman Empire. While it’s no secret that the Ottomans loved to eat, sweets played an even more important role due to their symbolic significance; no event went celebrated without a ceremonial dessert.
During the empire, the ground orchid root took on various shapes and uses, including sherbet, çevirme (a soft confection made with spices and nuts), ice cream, salep jam and a milky drink that was later given the English name of ‘saloop’.
Salep comes from the tubers of wild orchids, which are pulled out of the earth before the plant blooms, boiled in water, left out to dry, and processed by mills into a powder. Turkey possesses more than 170 kinds of orchid and the most wellknown areas for harvesting are Milas, the Eastern Mediterranean (mainly Kahramanmaraş), and the Western Black Sea (like Kastamonu). The root is also known for its healing qualities, whether chest congestion or preventing bronchitis.
Nowadays, Turks associate salep with the powder or ready-made drink that can be bought at any local supermarket. The powder doesn’t contain a trace of the actual pure ground orchid root, and contains artificial flavours and guar gum – the ground endosperm of guar beans.
Even though pure salep is available at every Istanbul baharatcı – stores that sell teas and spices – its drop in popularity is largely associated with its high price. It costs around 400 Turkish lira per kilo, while other staples, like Turkish coffee, cost around 50 Turkish lira per kilo.
The more popular option, though, is to drink salep at one of Istanbul’s many cafés. But even this is a contested decision: most now serve ‘nonorchid’ salep, topped with a thin layer of cinnamon, with Ali Usta in Moda and Yeniköy Kahvesi in Yeniköy the preferred choice for those seeking the genuine article. Even the traditional salepçi (salep vendor) on the street may hark back to nostalgic days, but they’ll often serve the cheaper artificial mixture. The other incarnation of salep that has survived since the Ottoman era is dövme dondurması (beaten ice cream) from Turkey’s southeastern province of Kahramanmaraş. Not much of an ice cream in the conventional sense, dövme dondurması is composed of hard blocks that must be cut with a chipping knife before being served. The secret to its thick consistency is a special beating process during the mixing stages, and the inclusion of salep in the blend.
While salep still maintains some popularity throughout Turkey, its story of production bares other implications – felt by the country’s environmentalists. With the Anatolian orchid’s need for protection, Zafer Kızılkaya, a photographer, researcher and president of the Mediterranean Conservation Society, began a project in 2010 regarding the conservation of the flower, particularly in areas where the species is heavily collected for culinary use in Turkey.
Kızılkaya’s project aims to promote sustainable harvest methods and the establishment of ‘Orchid Conservation Areas’, where species under serious human threat can flourish undisturbed. ‘Increasing demand in Europe and domestic consumption in the ice cream market has already pushed many endemic species to the brink of extinction or a serious decrease in population,’ says Kızılkaya. ‘Many rare species are believed to be extinct due to heavy collection from the wild. Today, wild orchid collecting is no way any closer to the demand.’
Nostalgic for the past, salep is at a crossroads between the effects of mass harvesting and its culinary importance. The ground orchid root is not likely to leave the glass jars of Istanbul spice sellers anytime soon, but its future is one dotted with uncertainty.
Brownbook, March-April, 2016