Sunday, 13 August 2006

sahlep, salep, sahlab

I first discovered sahlep in my final year of high school. After a cold day foraging through the second hand clothes at Glebe Markets, we crossed the road to the Badde Manors Café where Emily suggested I try this warm, creamy drink.

I fell in love.

It was also the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Sahlep, a Turkish winter drink, is made from the dried powdered roots of a mountain orchid. The powder is then heated with milk, sugar and cinnamon to make a thick dairy beverage.

In modern day Turkey, sahlep is used to cure sore throats and coughs and is only served during the cold months. Luckily for me the warm weather started late this year so when I visited Istanbul in April I caught the very end of the season!


Ancient recipe. Serves 2.

1 teaspoon sahlep powder
2 teaspoons sugar
Pinch of cinnamon
1½ cups milk
Cinnamon for dusting
1. Place all ingredients in a saucepan.
2. Boil, whisking continuously, for 2 – 3 minutes.
3. Pour into two cups, dust with cinnamon and enjoy.

The orchids used for sahlep grow in the mountains of southern Turkey (Orchis Latifolia / Orchis Anatolica). Their tubers are pulled from the ground while the plant is flowering and then they are boiled (in water or milk) before being dried and then ground into a powder.

The orchids contain a nutritious starch-like polysaccharide (complex carbohydrate) called bassorin, which accounts for the drink’s thickened consistency.

In Maras, the famous Turkish ice cream Salepi Maraş is a thick sahlep infused concoction. This dessert is boiled, stirred, aerated and churned to produce a chewy substance that doesn’t melt and can even be eaten with a knife and fork.

The name “sahlep” refers to the powder, although it is rather unfortunate that this pretty word is an abbreviation from the Arabic “hasyu al-tha`lab” which translates to “fox testicles”. Apparently the tubers look like fox testicles when they first come from the earth.

It’s not surprising then that sahlep is considered an aphrodisiac and, anecdotally, even the word “orchid” derives from the Greek word for testicle.

Before tea and coffee spread so widely, it is believed that sahlep was the beverage of choice in Europe and the Middle East and variations, known as satyrion and priapiscus were certainly consumed in Ancient Roman times. As Priapiscus was a god of fertility and the satyrs were often thought to be a debauched lot, it is assumed that the Ancient Roman drinks were considered aphrodisiacs too.

In Greece in the 1960s, sahlep caused some controversy for local rock band Aphrodite's Child, who noted on their album record sleeve “this album was recorded under the influence of sahlep”. Many thought it was some kind of illegal drug!

Sahlep is my offering to this week’s
Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted by Kalyn at Kalyn’s Kitchen. Be sure to check out the ever-growing list of veggie, herb and plant related recipes from around the world.



  1. Hi Anna,
    I just found this so you don't need to send me the link. Never heard of this before and I'm quite intrigued by it.

  2. LOL because I just realized you're probably in bed sound asleep when I'm writing you these comments.

  3. yes, i was dead to the world. actually, perhaps i picked up your thoughts because i dreamt about food and cooking all night long. it was a restless slumber.

  4. Hi Anna

    What a tasty sounding drink. I'm thinking chai but wondering exactly what the flavour of an orchid tastes like? This drink sounds like it could form the plot of a romance novel!

    I haven't been to Badde Manors or Glebe Markets in ages - but now I have a great reason to pay them a visit.

  5. Well it looks chai but I figure probably no where close in taste.

    I am learning so much from reading all this. Thank you.

  6. it's not as spicy and flavoursome as chai.

    to be honest the sahlep doesn't have a very strong flavour on it's own. it's more of a sweetness and thickness.

    without the cinnamon i imagine it would be a little dull, but there's still something very comforting about it.

  7. Hi Anna,
    Just wanted to let you know that I spotlighted this post for Blogher and used your photo (with a photo credit for you, of course.) Hope that's ok. You can see it here:

  8. Hi Anna,

    Nice to present Sahlep as such a cool, fashionable drink.
    Unfortunate for the local orchids, for they already on the point of extintion. However they grow in colonies with a few 1000 a time, when they are pulled out, the fungus they live on dies. After 2-3 years time that full colony of orchids forever will be wiped out.
    Europe and Turkey is doing everything to be able to start a breeding program, to save the wild populations, that locals pick, probarly for the money that is offered, so tourists in Istanbul can drink their warm seasonable drink. What is left, is mostly stolen by "orchid hunters", who sell the plants to fanatic "collectors", who pay big buck for it. With any praising of this drink and explaining where the last colonies of this mountain orchids grow, we are sure that over 10 years my son will be not able anymore, to ever see this orchids in the wild in Turkey. Thank you very much for helping with that matter. :)

  9. patrick, i think it's very unfair to blame the extinction of the orchids on tourists. turks, and most of the mediterranean, have been eating and drinking orchis latifolia / orchis anatolica products since the time of ancient rome and as an ingredient it is fairly entrenched in traditional turkish cooking. i think this explains the problem a lot more than “tourists in istanbul”.

    is this really about saving the orchid or is this a blame game so you can have a go at tourists?

    if you are genuine, then surely talking about the orchid’s extinction and encouraging the preservation of its habitat will increase the opportunities to protect it? in australia, where certain animals and plants have been close to extinction, huge campaigns have been launched to increase their profile and make people aware of the issues surrounding them. the attention draws allies.

    i do understand that, in poverty stricken areas, people are not concerned with the preservation of an orchid when they just want to make a living, but to blame tourists is naïve, misguided and bordering on intolerant. surely turkey’s internal agricultural policies have more of an impact than tourists?

    it is highly offensive that you found it necessary to write to me in such a sarcastic way when all you needed to do was express how important the preservation of these orchids is and that you feel promoting sahlep exacerbates the problem. you did not need to be so rude. i fear your style of communication needs significant improvement if you wish people to hear your valuable message more clearly.

  10. There are vendors, here in Greece, that sell "salepi", a cup is about two euro. I love the taste, and as much as I have tried, I couldn't make the beverage myself. I managed to get hold of some salep powder, but the guy I got it from did not specify how to make it. Do you know of any recipes to make salep bough in bulk, rather than packed?

  11. Biotrek SA in Athens, Greece makes an imitation salepi powder with which you can make a decent beverage at a low cost and help save the orchidea anatlica from becoming extinct. Contact

  12. Salep is popular in Egypt, specially in the winter months.

    Here is some background and the Egyptian Salep drink recipe.

  13. i know no-one has left a message for awhile, but you can make a reasonable facsimile of salep with cornflour (i think it's nice with either egg whites or whole egg, also - a bit like hot drinking custard mmmmmm)

  14. Thanks for the info, just a quick correction though...the band was called Aphrodite's Child. I was listening to their album & reading the liner notes and, well, that's how I ended up here! Thanks again!

  15. Sahlep may be getting extinct, but tourists cannot be blazmed for it at all. As also noted by Anna a type of ice-cream made in Turkey (called Maras Dondurmasi) uses sahlep by the ton, infinitely more than what a few tourists or even Turks can drink. This icecream is so different and so good that it even became a big industry, e.g. one company called MADO (an acronym for MAras DOndurmasi) has opened dozens of outlets, even a few outside Turkey. See
    They even list an outlet in Australia at (63 Auburn Road Auburn ,2144;Tel: +61] - 296 435 299 ;
    (see This web site seems to be under construction but there is some info at another Australian website: )

    However there may be a silver lining. Since this industry is so dependent on the sahlep plant, they know very well that they will go out of business when it becomes extinct. So they have been trying to find a way to grow it artificially. I remember reading something about it, but not sure how successful they have been so far.
    Erkan (from Istanbul)

  16. Orchids used in industrial production of sahlep are grown artificially. With good conditions made for them their taste is a bit ticker than natural orchids, but unlike traditinal methods nowadays they use flavor and starch from wheat and patatoes for thickness.

  17. Sahlab which would be the arabic pronunciation, has been known to and used by the arabs for centuries, and curious enough, most recipes cited as having turkish origin, whether for the drinks or the ice creams, were known to the arabs for much longer.
    This was just to put things in their right order, as so many things are wrongly attributed to the turks, who we should not forget, being an invading nomadic and barbaric people not long ago, did not have much of a stable culture and appropriated most things from the people they came to invade and come to live in neighbourhood, such as the arabs, persians, armenians. greeks and the balkans.
    Among some of the famous food stuff wrongly attributed to the turks are the Yogurt, doner, kenbab, Dolma, paklava, etc...
    I guess people should be better informed themselves about realities before they adopt popularised information for truth.
    Nothing against the turks,,, but as the french say, "rendons a Cesar ce qui appartient a Cesar" (Let's return to Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar).
    Amen !!

  18. this is for anon who went on the anti-turkish rant, all i can say to you is "yawn".

    every single culture in the entire world has adopted words, inventions, foods etc from their neighbours and evolved them into their own. to make out the turks are the only ones who ever did this is ignorant and leads me to suggest you take your own advice and "better inform yourself" before adopting bigoted propaganda.

    you say the turks were "invading nomadic and barbaric people not long ago"? i don't know too much about the ottoman empire but i know they were certainly more excepting of the diverse religions and cultures under their rule than their european counterparts during the same period and surely more tolerant than many modern nations in turkey's current vicinity.

    and who cares about what they were. let's focus on what are they now? turkey is certainly doing better than some of their neighbours these days, who one could argue have reverted from civilisation into chaos over religion and perceived injustices of the past.

    all you wanted to do was have a go at turkish people. take it elsewhere.


    can anyone tell me why this simple little post on a nice warm drink turned into such a controversial hot bed?!?!?

    people, this is a food blog, not a political chat room. chillax.

  19. Hi, we are a turkish delicatessen shp in Paris
    You may visit our shop or our web site to contact us to learn how to prepare o goog salep ( sahlep)
    selim levent
    tel : 0033143318375

  20. dear all and for the insulted ones. To put my words in deed, we started to breed sahlepo for the commercial breed ourselves, in regulated production houses in the Ukraine, so wildpick for this plants in the future will not be necessary anymore, to make natural sahlepo traditional way. Tourists happy, nature lovers happy and my son happy. :)

    The seeds came only from breeded plants from professional production houses in france.

  21. patrick, that's great news.
    thanks for coming back with an update :)

  22. Hi,it's been fascinating reading all this information on salep. I'm crazy about this drink. I first discovered it when I was studying in Syria about 15 years ago - we used to buy it hot from a street vendor on our way to university and the taste was delicious and unforgettable. I stumbled upon it again here in Melbourne where it's sold in packets in Oakleigh. I was sad to read on the packet that the ingredient is listed as artificial flavouring but, having read about the endangered status of the Turkish orchids, I'm glad to hear that at least the exported product isn't impacting on that. Can anyone tell me what the artificial flavouring in salep is made from? It tastes pretty good to me - almost as good as the real thing, Pod (Melbourne)

  23. Sahlep! Here in California we pronounce it as Sa-ha-laab. Is that how it is commonly pronounced? An Armenian barista who works for us introduced it to our menu as his signature drink, and I, for one, have never been the same. What I wonderful find!!!!
    We get the powder in very small quantities from a Grecian cafe which sells some interesting groceries, but if we are to truly provide it we need more supplies. Anyone know of a bulk or larger supplier?

  24. I have never heard about this drink. When I searched, I have come across this - "Turkish drink made from the starchy tubers of several members of the genus Orchis. It has a thickening effect on water, making kind of a hot chocolate consistency. It's often flavored with rose water or other ancient sweeteners."
    But it's not clear to me why do some consider it is a stimulant!

  25. I was treated to this drink this past winter on a trip to Istanbul from the US. I was in love. There was no need to feed me any other food the whole time I was there. However, I was enjoying this wonderful drink with the addition of one major additional ingredient - a scoop of chocolate ice cream! YUM! Unbelievable. This truly made it a nectar of the Gods.

  26. Sounds interesting! I'd love to try this :-)

  27. Would love to know where I can buy salep powder in Australia -either real or make icecream. had it recently in Istanbul, and must try to recreate that wonderful moment.

  28. To the anonymous person above this message, I live in Australia and I just bought some salep powder from a Greek/international supermarket near-ish to where I live. Super pumped to try it now ahaha.
    The supermarket's called Colossus, it's in Melbourne. Hope that helps.
    (just try any international supermarket, you'll find it eventually! ahaha)

  29. Hello! I am French living in Sydney and I am hunting for Sahlab/Salep as well :)having travelled and lived in countries like Lebanon, Greece and recently Turkey. I loved the chewing gum like ice creams and I find the mix with another subtle delicacy, "mastic" (I bought a little bag of mastic beads in Fremantle WA) that I grind myself absolutely delicious. In Greece, the mastic and Salepi ice cream is served with Cherry sirup. It is very good, and this wierd texture... I have just tried some Turkish instant Salep drink and it is very good too. I have been trying to find some pure salep powder (from industrially grown orchids of course) in Sydney. I have been in the wildest shops but nothing except the instant drinks. I went to MADO (quoted above who sell Turkish ice cream with mastic and salep) but the very nice guy there told me it was forbidden here in Australia as is is a protected plant and selling some to me would be worse than selling canabis (he said :)
    Is there an address somewhere? Does your supermarket sell on the net Anonymous above my message?
    Thanks for this great article Anna.
    Cheers, Flore.

  30. hi flore, i think everyone is australia is selling the instant stuff i'm afraid :(

  31. It is illegal to export real sahlep powder from turkey. So all you can find abroad is the instant powder. My 4-year old son is addicted to the real thing and can't sleep without it! I usually buy a small bag of it once a year in Istanbul and it lasts the whole year. But I feel really guilty about this like I was smuggling drugs. It looks like how I would imagine cocaine to look like! I really hope they manage to figure out how to grow it commercially.

  32. As mentioned, the orchid in question is sadly still listed as endangered. As it also seems quite difficult to cultivate the plant, finding a good salep-substitute still appears to be the preferred way to go for now.

    Myself, I'm primarily interested in salep because of its use in Oriental ice creams (notably in the legendary stretchy Turkish Dondurma). If you are interested, I have collected some suggestions for substitutes (for ice cream-making purposes)here:

  33. Actually the band's name is Aphrodite's Child and the aforementioned quote is on their album "666". I was researching sahlep due to the reference on the album.


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