At first, I almost didn’t even try salep.
We were in Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern, drips echoing between the 1,500-year-old columns, shadows shimmering on mossy walls. After exploring the complex — which the Romans built in the 400s to store water — we passed the the cafe and, forgetting our tendency to skip touristy eating joints, hesitated. It was near freezing outside, and windy. None of us were in a hurry to walk around more.
And so we looked at the menu. Hot chocolate, tea, coffee… and salep. It was the only thing I’d never heard of, but it was listed with the hot drinks and on that frigid day sounded perfect. After ordering, we sat in the dark sipping the creamy drink while fish churned the dark water below.
Getting salep was the right move, and it ended up being one of my favorite things about Turkey. Literally any time I could order salep, I did.
The drink looks like warm milk or horchata, but it’s much thicker. In fact, it’s made by adding orchid starch to milk, then heating. The result is a creamier, more filling beverage than almost any other warm drink I’ve tried.
Salep is typically flavored with cinnamon and is sold throughout Istanbul in the winter (not sure about the summer, but I doubt there’s much demand for thick, hot drinks during the warm months). The quality also varies considerably; I had salep that was thin and watery (and not great) and salep that had a nearly pudding-like consistency.
Prices also vary from 3 Turkish lira at small stands, to 13 lira at museum cafes. (In my experience price was not an indicator of quality.) Though many places prepared salep to order, I also learned to keep any eye out for large metal salep vats.
Salep is not easy to find outside of Turkey. Los Angeles, where I live while not traveling, has a bunch of Turkish restaurants, though I did not immediately see salep on any of their menus (though some do have the delicious yogurt drink Ayran).
I suppose that’s part of the joy of traveling; you experience things that are limited to certain places, and you can neither anticipate the pleasure they’ll provide nor bring them back home. If everything were available everywhere all the time, maybe the wonder that comes from discovering new things would be diminished.
Still, other people have also visited Turkey and loved salep, and some of them have worked up do-it-yourself recipes.
In any case, salep was one of Turkeys best, most unexpected surprises. If you ever have a chance to visit in the winter, don’t miss it.
— Jim Dalrymple II