CONSIDER THE ORCHID. Delicate, asymmetrical and suspiciously solitary, an orchid protrudes out of the miasmic fecundity of a jungle or rainforest like an alien probe. Some poke out of loamy soil, while others cling like parasites to tree branches with their aerial roots, as though ready to move if startled. The flowers themselves evoke the feminine, their petals and lobes mirroring multicolored female genitalia.
But the orchid is a symbolic hermaphrodite, and it is the other end of the plant we are concerned with today. The root bulbs of wild orchids, bulbous and dangling, have historically reminded people of the male reproductive organ, inspiring them to pluck it, dry it, pulverize it to a powder and turn it into a warm, sweet, milky beverage meant to refresh the soul and stimulate the libido.
This drink is called sahleb or sahlab or salep or sachlav or salepi depending on where in the world you are, ranging in consistency from a milky hot chocolate to a spoonable pudding (the bulk of it is just milk and sugar, with the orchid root powder as the thickener).
The first recorded use of orchid tubers in aphrodisiac drinks was among the Romans, who, to be fair, were keen to make such drinks out of every suggestively shaped plant or animal part they found. In the 17th and 18th centuries, salep became fashionable in Europe and England, where it was called “saloop.” Imported from the Ottoman Empire, for a time it rivaled tea and coffee for a place in the delicately painted teacups of bewigged aristocrats.
Today it is still a ubiquitous street food and winter treat in Mediterranean/Levant countries like Greece and Turkey, where it is sipped like eggnog and even made into a type of chewy ice cream called donderma that one can eat with a knife and fork.
Supposedly it has “warming” properties too, hence its popularity as a winter beverage. It is also said to be useful in fattening up girls before marriage, a property that I suspect could make it far less appealing stateside (although any fattening effect might have less to do with orchid powder and more to do with the fact that what you’re drinking is, essentially, warm ice cream).
In Europe, it was sometimes considered an effective hangover cure as well (I believed the same thing about milkshakes when I was in college, and many people swear fatty, sweet dairy products work wonders in that regard). Its popularity in Europe is said to have waned because at some point the drink acquired a reputation for being a cure for syphilis, so it became shameful to be seen drinking it in public (although, despite its total inefficacy as a cure against any disease, I’m sure people kept drinking it in private for that reason).
But, as so often happens with foods cursed with a reputation for being aphrodisiacs, (rhino horn, for example) human enthusiasm is outstripping supply, and in some parts of Turkey and Iran these wild orchids are in danger of extinction. Due to a bevy of international regulations meant to protect the very existence of the species, getting real salep powder in the United States can be tricky and expensive. You can go to Turkey and bring some back, of course, and you can order it on Amazon, although there is no guarantee that what you’re getting contains much (or any) orchid powder at all (cornstarch typically makes up the bulk of the volume). There are heavy penalties for illegally harvesting orchids, and throughout history, substitutes abounded.
While you theoretically cannot make salep from any old orchid (so don’t run out to Trader Joe’s and clean them out of all those pretty phalaenopsis plants by the front door), given the scarcity of the real thing, one wonders how many of those 18th century European aristocrats ever had real salep at all.
Even today, if you order it on the street in Turkey, there’s no guarantee you’re getting the genuine article. Many historical recipes for “saloop” substitute in powder made from English orchid varieties, or even sassafras root powder imported from North America. Anyway, the actual taste of the salep powder is mild, said to be vaguely vegetal (I myself have never had it, so feel free to enlighten me) and you can certainly approximate the drink with more readily available ingredients. And if you want “authentic” 17th-century European saloop, you can simply refer to the recipe below.
Note: I think any milk works, from cow to almond, although I got a better consistency from milks on the thicker side, such as whole milk or full-fat oat milk.
1 cup milk (see note)
1 tablespoon sassafras powder or cornstarch (I have not tried arrowroot powder, but I think that would work just as well)
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Optional: rose water, orange flower water, crushed pistachios, cinnamon or cardamom, pulverized dried berries
Combine the milk, cornstarch, sugar and vanilla in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, whisking all the time, and then allow to boil for two minutes while whisking energetically. At about this point the mixture will thicken, so remove it from the heat. Serve warm or cold, topped with crushed pistachios, dried berries, cinnamon, etc. If adding rose water or orange flower water, mix in a few drops just before serving.