Salep is a Turkish drink made from the roots of several species of orchids. The term can refer both to the roots themselves and to a beverage made from them. Today, due to concerns about Turkey's orchid population, it can be challenging to find true salep outside of the country, as the nation has severely curtailed exports. As a result, beverages made with artificial flavorings are commonly available in places where people have a taste for this distinctive product.
Both Orchis mascula and O. militaris are used to produce salep; the name is derived from the Arabic sahlap, which means “orchid.” These roots contain a distinctive starch which gives salep a unique texture and mild flavor. Traditionally, the roots are ground and sold in a powdered form, with cooks adding the powder to hot beverages, desserts, and sometimes ice cream, as well.
Classically, salep is offered as a winter beverage, made by whisking the power in with milk, sugar, and spices. Plain salep has a very mild, slightly creamy flavor, while versions with spices are a bit more exciting. The powder can also be included in ice creams and sherbets for warm weather consumption; classically, frozen desserts made with it are chewy, rather than creamy, thanks to the thickening properties of the powder.
Because the roots of the orchids used to make salep have a rather suggestive shape, this food has historically been used as an aphrodisiac. Under the principles of sympathetic medicine, doctors would also recommend it to men who experienced fertility or virility issues, under the belief that consuming objects which looked sort of like testicles would confer the properties of healthy testes.
In the 1600s, a general fascination with the Orient led to a brief fad for salep in England and some other parts of Europe. Typically, orange or rose water was used to flavor the drink in English cafes, and sometimes other species of orchids would be used as well. Today, salep or versions made with artificial flavorings can be found in communities with a large Turkish population. People who travel to Turkey may want to take advantage of the trip to get the genuine powder, as it truly is a unique experience.