Salep – An endangered tradition

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Walking around Istanbul a couple of years ago on a beautiful but freezing day,  a street seller asked me if i would like to try Salep.
I had heard of it but never tried it. A warm, traditional winter drink, made from the tubers of rare orchids. These Orchids have become so rare and so close to extinction that the Turkish government has banned their export.Sahlep, also known as Sahlap or Salep, is a common drink in Turkey. The powder of Salep can be mixed with milk or water, boiled until it turns into a thick consistency. It is often topped with a pinch of cinnamon. It is thick, sweet and warming on a cold winters day.
salep
The key ingredient is the powder made from the ‘tubers’ of a rare orchid found in Turkey and West Asia. In Anatolia, it can be found in the north, east, southeast and south.
To create the powder, the tubers of specific wild orchids (Orchis, Ophyrus, Serapias, Platanthera, Dectylorhiza) are dug up, washed, boiled, air dried and finally ground.The history of this ingredient goes back for centuries. It was used in special concoctions prepared for the Ottoman Sultans due to its medicinal properties. The palace medics documented its uses in their records since the 12th and 13th centuries. Also as a non-alcoholic drink, it offered a pleasant alternative to alcoholic drinks banned due to religious reasons. The Sultans loved it and they had good reason; the plant has been thought to have aphrodisiac properties, help soothe colds and coughs, and strengthen the immune system.Today, the hot sahlep drink is popular in pastry and pudding shops in all major cities.In the cities of Kastamonu, Silifke, Antalya, Muğla, Safranbolu and finally, Kahramanmaraş salep powder is used in the famous Turkish ice cream. So chewy you have to cut it with a knife! If you travel to Turkey, you will probably be tricked by an ice cream vendor dressed in a traditional outfit. He will extend a cone of ice cream at the end of a stick and retracting it at the last minute. Because of the texture of the famous ice cream, sticky, chewy, delicious it can be thrown into the air by these ice cream magicians but soon, this tradition may disappear. It is so popular that part of the city of Istanbul has become known as the “ice cream district” and regularly jams up with traffic, such is the demand to sample the dessert. You can sample this delicious ice cream for yourself aswell as much more on our fantastic Road to Paradise trip.
salep orchid
Twenty years ago Turkey banned the export of this expensive product. To get 1 kilo of salep flour, more than 1000 orchid tubers are pulled out of the soil. It takes up to 7 or 8 years for the orchid’s tubers to grow sufficiently to use for salep production. Harvesting the tubers requires removing the dominant bulb of an orchid plant, this process usually ends the life of the plant. As with all bulbs, flowering can take many years. Without the flowers the plants stand little chance of reproducing. Hence, over harvesting has been threatening the wild orchid population in Turkey.

It would be a tragedy if Turkey was to lose its wild orchids. Not only for the traditional food and drink but also for the insects and environments that would suffer. Turkey would be a much duller place without the glorious spring flowers.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the Salep, I do feel guilty that I may have contributed to the decline of these beautiful plants.

What will save the orchids is for the plants to be become a profitable agricultural product. A groundbreaking project that is helping to protect Turkey’s precious bulbs is being undertaken.  If a cheaper domestic salep can enter the market, wild salep digging would not be profitable. All is not lost and in part 2 of this article I will give information on the Indigenous Propagation Project which is still in it’s infancy.

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Volkan

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