The Seductive Taste of Salep

                 Most people agree that orchids are among the most magnificent and elegant of flowers, and a bunch can make a romantic and seductive gift. But in Turkey, orchids offer more than their beauty to win people's hearts: they are the basis for a famous delicacy.

                 Please do not eat your orchid flowers, they might even be poisonous. İt is the wild orchid bulb which is the secret source of salep, the iconic hot milky drink, an indispensable winter taste for many İstanbulites. Salep flour is made by boiling, drying, and powdering tubers of various wild orchid flowers, mostly from Dactylorhiza latifolia, Orchid mascula, Orchis laxiflora, Orchis morio, and Orchis militaris. The salep flour thickens and flavors the milk, starch, sugar, and vanilla that typically makes the drink.
                 When salep is the real thing, it's thick but silky smooth, a joy to sip the piping hot, almost viscous liquid while making a slurping sound. Beyond its creaminess, the salep root has a patricular faint taste reminiscent of faded ginger perhaps and people almost always associate the drink with cinnamon, which is usually sprinkled on top. With such qualities, and renowned for its invigorating powers, salep was always destined to travel far.

                 One of the early mentions of its aphrodisiac qualities was by Dioscorides, the famous first century Greek botanist and physician. The ancient Romans knew about salep and used ground orchid bulbs to make drinks calling them names that referenced their aphrodisiac properties, such as satyrion and priapiscus. The sixteenth century 

Swiss physician Paracelsus, known for his studies on folk medicine and as pioneer in chemistry, was fascinated by salep. "Behold the Satyrion root, is it not formed like the male privy parts?" he wrote. "No one can deny this. Accordingly, magic discovered it and revealed that it can restore a man's virility an passion."

                 İt was a popular Ottoman beverage. İn the seventeenth century, the great Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi described salep in detail and raved about its benefits: "The salep is commonly called 'fox's testicle and grows on high mountains such as the Olympus of Bursa" he wrote.

                 "İt grows like an onion, and when dried is ground into a powder, cooked with sugar like a jelly, and sold in cans heated by fire. They cry: 'Take salep, seasoned with rosewater, rest for the soul, health for the body!' İt is a fortifying and invigoraing beverage, and sharpens the eyesight."

                 İn England it was known as salop, or saloop, and it became a popular drink in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As early as 1727, Eliza Smith's popular cookery book The Compleat Housewife subtitled Accomplish'd Gentlewomans's Companion suggests boiling a quarter of an ounce of finely powdered salop and drinking it in "china cups as chocolate."

                 The 1771 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica features a detailed section on the preparation of orchid roots that fits exactly to the traditional preparation of salep in rural Turkey today. By the 1800s there were several salop houses in London serving an opalescent drink made with water thickened with salep, sweerened with sugar, and then flavored seductively with orange flower or rose water.

                 Salop sellers even became a feature of London streets, operating late at night and frequented by laborers at the crack of dawn. Salop made swiftly made its way from the tables of the elite to being consumed by the working classes. İt was later famed as a cure to treat venereal disease, and then quickly became quite embarrassing to dring in public and fell out of favor.

                 Luckily, salep did not share the same fate in Turkey, and almost all former Ottoman lands from the Balkans to the Middle East still drink a version of it. However, the privilege of drinking wild orchid root powder should not be taken for granted. Though it can be made and sold in Turkey, exporting genuine salep producing orchid varieties are under protection, listed as endangered species. Best to enjoy it little by little, sip by sip, in small quantities, so that we may long enjoy this seductive delight!
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