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For Many U.S. Turks, Salep Is Beloved but Elusive


In Turkey, winter is the season of salep.

In the streets, peddlers pushing carts sell the hot, milky drink traditionally made from ground orchid tubers. Between classes, students warm their cold fingers around flimsy paper cups filled with steaming salep. On the ferry across the Bosporus, businessmen sip it with one hand and check their email with the other.

But in the United States, the Turkish drink is almost impossible to find or make. Decades of strain from habitat loss, climate change and over-harvesting have taken their toll on orchids, a main ingredient. Export is difficult, as orchids are included in an appendix to an international agreement meant to protect different species from trade.

Still, homesick Turks dream of real salep, which is something like a cross between hot chocolate and rice pudding. Like a slice of pizza in New York, the drink is a beloved street food. Many learn to make it only after they immigrate.

“When I came here to America, that’s one of the drinks that I couldn’t find,” said Meral Kaya, a Turkish immigrant who lives with her family in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens. “I still can’t. Food-wise, salep is what I really miss the most.”

Each time she goes back to Turkey, Ms. Kaya buys small amounts of the pure ground orchid tuber. In New York, she tries to ration the precious powder, inviting friends over for a single steaming mug. She mixes the salep into milk simmering over low heat, stirring until it thickens to the consistency of cake batter. Then, she grates cinnamon sticks over the top to serve.

“Real, quality salep makes a lot of difference,” said Ms. Kaya, 50, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College. “I invest in it, and it’s worth it.”

Many Middle Eastern grocers in the United States sell mixes, imitations often made with just a hint — or maybe just the idea — of the real thing.

“These are chemically made,” said Nihat Yildiz, the owner of Sunny Grocery, which sells Turkish and Middle Eastern ingredients in Sunnyside, Queens. “Someone called asking about the real thing. But I told them, ‘Check Amazon or fly back to Turkey for the weekend.’ ”

Online, 75 grams of salep powder advertised as pure can sell for almost $60, but home cooks cannot verify the product’s authenticity before purchase.

“It’s unclear how much salep is in any of these products,” said Oya Topcuoglu, a lecturer in the Middle East and North African studies program at Northwestern University, speaking of the mixes. “Most of them are just basically cornstarch.”

To make a single kilogram of salep, around 1,000 to 4,000 orchid plants are used.

The plants are included in an appendix to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, an agreement meant to protect plants and animals from the potential harm posed by international trade. (While they may not all be endangered, CITES covers all orchids, in part because officials may be unable to distinguish different species by sight.)

“Even botanists can’t tell those orchid roots apart,” said Susanne Masters, a doctoral candidate in ethnobotany at Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Leiden University in the Netherlands who studies orchids. “So you can’t expect a customs officer to be a taxonomy specialist by sight.”

Orchids are also vulnerable to illegal harvesting, as poorly enforced bans have done little to stop collection. More and more, salep comes from Greece or Iran and is imported with questionable legality, according to Abdolbaset Ghorbani, a researcher in the department of organismal biology at Uppsala University in Sweden. (“In practice, CITES is a little bit toothless,” Ms. Masters explained.)

Within Turkey, salep remains popular, but wild orchids are increasingly scarce. A growing global appetite for another food made from salep, a taffy-like Turkish ice cream, has also added to the strain.

Versions of salep, which is usually topped with cinnamon and considered to have medicinal properties, can be found across the former Ottoman Empire. In Lebanon and Egypt, sahlab often comes with rose water. In Greece, salepi is sometimes seasoned with ground ginger. In Israel, sachlav usually comes with shaved pistachios.

“It’s this premodern, eggnoggy, hot chocolate-y drink that people have counted on having in the wintertime,” said Febe Armanios, a history professor at Middlebury College and an author of “Halal Food: A History.” For many, she said, “it’s a taste of home.”

Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery, in the West Village, in Manhattan, started serving salep this winter. The owner, Umber Ahmad, tried some in Istanbul a few years ago. When she decide to develop a recipe, she called the concierge at her hotel for advice. She takes care to get the product in sustainable ways, she said.

“I didn’t want to be the person who was lending to the scarcity of the plant,” Ms. Ahmad said.

Back in her Queens kitchen, Ms. Kaya, the assistant professor, stirred a powder mix into simmering milk.

“This tastes dusty,” Ms. Kaya said, sipping slowly. “I wish it was real salep. I miss sitting down and relaxing with it.”

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