It gets cold in Istanbul in December. Walking from mosque to mosque to the occasional sultan residential complex in a jacket that’s just not warm enough is a good way to catch the bug. I was in no mood to get sick on the first day of my trip, as I still had 3 days of questionable street meat (döner) and room temperature mollusks (midye) to consume. One way to keep your bones warm through all the outdoor tourism is to stop at a sahlep cart and indulge in one of these drinks they have all around the city at this time of the year. It’s like grilled sweet potatoes in Barcelona, mulled cider in Budapest or roasted chestnuts pretty much anywhere in the world: a festive thing meant to warm body and soul.
We stopped at a salepçi between the Süleymaniye and the Ayasofya for a cup each of the stuff poured from a brass samovar. The guy ripped us off royally and we let him do it. I had had my share of haggling in the Grand Bazaar just before and wasn’t in the mood to argue over dimes. 4 lira for something that’s usually 50 cents? Take it, my man. Just give me the stuff!
Sahlep is a thick and creamy liquid that has a sticky, goopy consistency and serves a culinary role similar to that of eggnogg during the holidays. It’s a mixture of whole milk and sahlep flour, which is a powder made from the dried roots (buds) of a wild Anatolian mountain orchid. Also added are water, sugar, vanilla and a touch of either orange blossom or rose water. It has a wonderfully floral aroma and a mildly sweet flavor that is immensely comforting on a frosty winter day. It glides down the throat drowsily, burning or warming, depending on the restraint you show in gulping it down. I took time with mine and it was the perfect snack, reminding me of hot tapioca pudding or diluted porridge but with loads more flavor hidden beneath the cinnamon.
I imagine this is the kind of thing Turks really miss when they move abroad and don’t come back for Christmas. Like the roasted chestnuts, the sesame-crusted simit bagels and the deep-fried, syrup-soaked tatlı and lokma nearby, a cup of salep brings a unique comfort that it alone can achieve. It’s like a strong, determined hug when you’re having a weird day.