Get the Recipe
Many moons ago, I spent one fantastic week in Istanbul with friends, walking everywhere, visiting countless mosques, and, inevitably and gloriously, eating and drinking Turkish specialties that I had never encountered at home. Yes, the kebabs were moist and beguilingly spiced; the baklava, in dozens of shapes and colors, divine. But my Favorite Thing I Tasted in Turkey award went to a humble hot beverage that I chanced to sample mere moments after emerging from the airport: salep.
This smooth, frothy drink is made with whole milk that's thickened with starch, sweetened with sugar, and flavored with rosewater or orange blossom water, cinnamon and, sometimes, a dusting of ground pistachios. It's sold by street vendors all over Istanbul (and presumably the rest of the country), who keep the beverage hot inside the small aluminum carts they wheel through the city's streets: order a cup, and the vendor will quickly ladle some salep into a little styrofoam cup, hand it over, and charge you about fifty cents.
Salep is unlike any other hot beverage I've ever tried: thick and silky, like a watered-down porridge, it's much more substantial than any steamed milk-based drink and tastes a million times more exotic, the warming spices perfuming each sip.
Before I left Istanbul, I picked up a packet of instant salep mix. But when I mixed it together at home, it tasted nothing like the magical drink I remembered. I wanted to develop my own recipe but encountered a major obstacle: the starch used to thicken salep is made from ground orchid tubers—good luck finding that on this side of the Atlantic.
So I gave up on salep for a time, consoling myself by occasionally visiting Sofra in Cambridge, where they make a mean version. But some weeks ago I got re-inspired, trolling the internet for ideas for an orchid-root alternative. To my surprise and pleasure, a few blogs recommended the use of glutinous rice flour, a superfine starch used all over Asia, notably to make Japanese mochi dough. It's available in any well-stocked Asian supermarket.
At home, I whipped up a test batch, flavoring my salep with rosewater and garnishing it with cinnamon and chopped pistachios. I took a sip and it was just as I remembered: velvety with just a hint of sweetness, it called forth memories of padding through Istanbul all those years ago.