If you're like me, you remember your travel experiences in a variety of ways: some, as a series of visuals; others, as an array of local flavors; and still others as a catalog of aromas. Last spring, I visited Istanbul, Turkey, and when I recall my days spent traipsing through the city's narrow, winding streets and in and out of its stunning mosques, what I remember best are the tantalizing smells: the heady mixture of cumin, mint and sumac wafting through the ancient, and still bustling, Spice Bazaar; the one-two punch of honey and and toasted nuts permeating the small, plain-looking pastry shops offering dozens of iterations of delectable baklava; and the exotic, beguiling aroma of salep.
I first encountered salep shortly after stepping off the plane in Istanbul, when I emerged from the metro into the touristy area surrounding the Blue Mosque. It was unusually cold outside—snowing, even—when I visited, so when I noticed a street vendor ladling a steaming, unfamiliar-looking beverage into cups for fellow tourists, I promptly joined the line. Not quite knowing what I was purchasing, I nevertheless felt sure I was in for something good, as my nose detected notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and something I couldn't recognize. With my first sip, I was hooked: the drink was sweet, creamy, and complex-tasting, and for the remainder of my trip, I treated myself to a hot cup each night.
A little research revealed what makes salep so unique: ground orchid bulbs, which are high in starch and lend the drink its velvety texture. Steamed milk or water, plus sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon are the remaining ingredients. I also discovered that salep once enjoyed immense popularity not only within the confines of the Ottoman Empire, where it originated, but also in European nations such as England and Germany, where it was a popular option before the rise of coffee and tea.
I wasn't sure if I would ever encounter salep again, so before leaving Turkey, I picked up some instant mix that I found at the Spice Bazaar. When I prepared it at home, though, I found it wanting in both flavor and texture. So imagine my delight when, during a short visit to Cambridge, I stopped into Sofra and found it on the menu. Chef Ana Sortun's tranquil, light-filled Mediterranean café is best known for its affordable mezze plates and delicate pastries, but I suggest that no visit is complete without a steaming mug of salep ($3.25). Sofra's version, which uses steamed milk, is just as rich and fragrant as any of the varieties I encountered abroad—if not more so. It's a drink you'll remember for a long time to come.