Why It Works
- Using glutinous rice flour as a substitute for the hard-to-find Turkish thickener makes this beverage easy to recreate.
Many moons ago, I spent one fantastic week in Istanbul with friends, walking everywhere, visiting countless mosques, and, inevitably and gloriously, eating and drinking Turkish specialties that I had never encountered at home. Yes, the kebabs were moist and beguilingly spiced; the baklava, in dozens of shapes and colors, divine. But my Favorite Thing I Tasted in Turkey award went to a humble hot beverage that I chanced to sample mere moments after emerging from the airport: salep.
This smooth, frothy drink is made with whole milk that's thickened with starch, sweetened with sugar, and flavored with rosewater or orange blossom water, cinnamon and, sometimes, a dusting of ground pistachios. It's sold by street vendors all over Istanbul, who keep the beverage hot inside the small aluminum carts they wheel through the city's streets: order a cup, and the vendor will quickly ladle some salep into a little styrofoam cup, hand it over, and charge you about fifty cents.
Salep is unlike any other hot beverage I've ever tried: thick and silky, like a watered-down porridge, it's much more substantial than any steamed milk-based drink, the warming spices perfuming each sip.
Before I left Istanbul, I picked up a packet of instant salep mix. But when I mixed it together at home, it tasted nothing like the magical drink I remembered. I wanted to develop my own recipe but encountered a major obstacle: the starch used to thicken salep is made from ground orchid tubers—good luck finding that on this side of the Atlantic.
So I gave up on salep for a time, consoling myself by occasionally visiting Sofra in Cambridge, where they make a mean version. But some weeks ago I got re-inspired, trolling the internet for ideas for an orchid-root alternative. To my surprise and pleasure, a few blogs recommended the use of glutinous rice flour, a superfine starch used all over Asia, notably to make Japanese mochi dough. It's available in any well-stocked Asian supermarket.
At home, I whipped up a test batch, flavoring my salep with rosewater and garnishing it with cinnamon and chopped pistachios. I took a sip and it was just as I remembered: velvety with just a hint of sweetness, it called forth memories of padding through Istanbul all those years ago.
- 2 tablespoons glutinous rice flour (see notes)
- 2 cups whole milk
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon rosewater
- Ground cinnamon, for garnish
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped pistachios, for garnish
In a small saucepan, combine glutinous rice flour and milk, whisking well. Set saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. When mixture has thickened, about 2 minutes longer, add sugar and rosewater and stir. Divide salep between 2 mugs and garnish with cinnamon and chopped pistachios.
Glutinous rice flour is used in many Southeast Asian recipes and can be found at any well-stocked Asian supermarket.