photo by Dawn Starin
In the past, salepi sellers carried large copper jugs or samovars on their backs. Today they use mobile carts, such as this one at the edge of Monastiraki Square, an open space for demonstrations and performances.
Salepi Extinction, Salepi
Survival: How a Change in Ingredients Could Help Safeguard Orchids
text by Dawn Starin
Survival: How a Change in Ingredients Could Help Safeguard Orchids
text by Dawn Starin
First printed in Orchids, August 2012
In the middle of Athens, outside the modern hectic Central Market on Athinas not far from Europe’s oldest shopping mall, as well as elsewhere in the city, are the occasional mobile carts vending salepi — a hot, aromatic, sweet, thick drink traditionally made from the powder of dried and pulverized orchid tubers, sugar, milk and cinnamon and stored in big brass or copper pots.
Once common throughout the Ottoman Empire, salepi was introduced into Athens from Constantinople and Smyrna in the mid-18th century according to Professor Antonia-Leda Matalas from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Harokopio University. Farther north and even further back in time, before the introduction of tea and coffee, salepi was sold on the streets of London during Oliver Cromwell’s time and known as “saloop.” The English essayist Charles Lamb claimed that saloop made an ideal breakfast and had “a taste beyond the China luxury” (Taylor 2003). In fact, saloop was once more popular in England than coffee and tea. When the prices of coffee and tea fell in the 19th century, however, they rapidly replaced saloop as the common hot drink (Marks 2010). And now? Today? Today, throughout their range, the salepi sellers and their orchid-based drink are disappearing.
photo by Massimo Cipolla
The colorful flowers of Orchis mascula stand out in the landscape, making it an easy target for collectors.
The orchid has a long history of being endowed with magical and medical powers and salepi has often been considered a sexual and medical elixir. The very word salep comes from the Arabic “saleb,” which translates as “testicles of the fox,” and the word “orchis” in Greek means testicle. Dioscorides, a first-century Greek physician who served in Nero’s Roman army, recommended the use of orchid tubers as an aphrodisiac and as medicine in his De Materia Medica (Bulpitt 2005). During this time it was believed that plants were used for medicinal purposes according to the parts of the body they resembled and because the underground tubers of many orchids resembled testicles, orchid tubers were believed to heal diseases of the testicles and stimulate lust. Furthermore, it was believed that if men ate whole fat new tubers they would produce male progeny and if women ate shrivelled-up old tubers they would give birth to female children (Bulpitt 2005). In the 12th century, Maimonides, the Jewish rabbi, philosopher and medic, claimed that orchid roots could “revive the spirits and arouse sexual desire” (Marks 2010). The people of the Middle Ages also believed that orchid plants came up from the drops of semen that fell to earth in meadows where animals came together to breed (Schweinfurth 1959). Harking back to earlier beliefs, the 17th-century herbalist John Parkinson, apothecary to King James the First and royal botanist to King Charles the First, wrote that the firm roots of the orchid procure lust while the withered tubers restrain it (Parkinson 1640).
Plying his trade in modern Athens against an ancient backdrop, one Athenian vendor informs me that it will do wonders for a flagging sex life — he claims it is a natural Viagra. Could these interesting bits of sexual folklore have some extremely distant and convoluted basis in reality? One fairly recent study appears to show that lab rats fed on a diet of dried orchid root appeared to show increased serum testosterone levels and enhanced sexual desire and performance (Allouh et al. 2010).
Sexual and reproductive beliefs and fantasies aside, for centuries orchid tubers were also believed to reduce fever and cure tuberculosis and diarrhea. Some of these beliefs still exist. One vendor explains that it “takes the shakes away and brings calm” and another vendor informs me that it is an ancient remedy for any chest or throat complaints I might suffer from.
It appears that the medicinal qualities ascribed to salepi are not simply ineffective propaganda created by vendors to sell their drink. The customers actually appear to believe the health hype and have believed so for centuries. Sitting in Monastiraki Square watching the salepi sellers attempt to ply their trade, I realize that the majority of customers buying this drink are middle-aged and old men. And so I wonder whether some present-day Athenians still believe that this enigmatic drink is in fact a sweet liquid Viagra-like panacea.
As a vendor pours some salepi out of his big brass pot into a Styrofoam cup and sprinkles cinnamon on top, I ask a young Athenian customer what she thinks of it. She says, “I like it. But, this is the first time I’ve ever tried it. My mother says it’s good to drink in the winter to keep colds and flu away and I’m feeling a bit under the weather right now.”
Salepi Wikimedia Commons
As I wander the streets of Athens, I stop and ask some of the vendors about their businesses. Speaking with five men and one woman — be they Greek, Turkish or Albanian — they all tell me that business is bad; the old people who liked salepi are dying and the young people just want to sit in the cafes and drink coffee. One old vendor tells me that when he dies, his business will die. One young vendor tells me that he would like to get a better job, something that would allow him to make a living wage. Once a common sight on the streets of Athens, frequented by both early morning workers and night owls, salepi sellers and their picturesque carts are disappearing from the urban scene.
Unfortunately, what is happening now is that a unique drink once bringing socalled health and happiness to hordes of imbibers throughout some parts of Asia, the Middle East, the southern Mediterranean and even the streets of London for millennia is now on the verge of extinction. Consequently, a way of life for the oncemany, now-few salepi mobile cart sellers roaming the streets of Athens is slowly disappearing.
It is not, however, just the drink and its vendors that are disappearing. Many orchid species, throughout their range, are threatened by human activities and are now considered to be at risk of extinction as a result of the overzealous collection from the wild. According to Phillip Cribb, PhD, former chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission’s Orchid Specialist Group and co-editor and founder of Orchid Conservation News, the collection of orchids for salepi is contributing to the decline of many wild orchid populations. As long ago as 1994, data provided by the Flora and Fauna Preservation society showed that in Turkey alone more than 16 million orchid plants, involving at least 38 species, were collected each year for the production of salep (Hágsater and Dumont 1996). Today, orchids in Turkey are in serious danger of extinction and their export is prohibited (Anon. 2003). Greek orchids are also threatened with extinction due to overharvesting and destroyed habitats and so they too are protected by law, making it illegal to pick them or dig up their roots. Because it supposedly takes more than 1,000 orchids to obtain 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of dried tubers (Anon. 2003) it is not surprising that several orchid species now face extinction, especially since all the salepi sellers I spoke to claim that their salepi is made from genuine orchid root.
Orchis simia, another source of salepi. photo by Richard Bateman
According to Gil Marks (2010), in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, because the demand for and the cost of the orchid tubers has risen, the orchids are becoming rare and salepi is now often made with cornstarch or other inferior ingredients. Some food experts, however, might disagree with the use of the term “inferior.” According to Alan Davidson (1999), author of the Oxford Companion to Food, salep is virtually tasteless and its thickening qualities are similar to arrowroot, potato starch and cornstarch. Claudia Roden, the doyenne of Middle Eastern cooking, considers that the use of cornstarch for salep is a legitimate substitution (Roden 1985). Outside the gastronomic sphere, botanists and conservationists would certainly approve of these ersatz substitutions. So, if it is not already actually being used on the streets of Athens, cornstarch and other cheaper, less-endangered, less-authentic and more easily available thickening agents may be the saviors of the now-endangered orchid roots. And, indirectly, the savior of the few salepi sellers now pushing their carts through the streets of Athens and beyond. That is, of course, if the young people can be coaxed away from their coffee.
Allouh, M.Z., N.A. Khouri, H.M. Daradka, M. Haytham and E.G. Kaddumi. 2010. Orchis anatolica Root Ingestion Improves Sexual Motivation and Performance in Male Rats. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine 7(1).
Anonymous. 2003. Ice Cream Threatens Turkey’s Flowers. https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3126047.stm. Accessed April 2012.
Bulpitt, C.J. 2005. The Uses and Misuses of Orchids in Medicine. QJM 98(9):625–631. https://qjmed.oxfordjournals. org/content/98/9/625.full. Accessed April 2012.
Davidson, A. 1999. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. Hágsater, E., and V. Dumont [eds.]. 1996. IUCN Status Survey and Action Plan on Orchids. IUCN Publications Services Unit, Cambridge. https://data.iucn.org/dbtwwpd/ edocs/1996-024.pdf. Accessed April 2012.
Marks, G. 2010. Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. Wiley, Hoboken.
Parkinson, J. 1640. Paradisus in Sole Terrestris. London.
Roden, C. 1985. A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Viking, London.
Schweinfurth, C. 1959. Orchids of Peru. Fieldiana: Botany 30.
Taylor, G. 2003. Notes from an Orchid Meadow. BBC Wildlife 21:526-30.
Dawn Starin is an honorary research associate at University College London and has spent decades doing anthropological and ecological research in Africa and Asia. Her nonacademic articles have appeared in publications as varied as Asia Literary Review, Index on Censorship, Natural History, Philosophy Now, The Ecologist, Gastronomica and The New York Times, among others.
photo by Dawn Starin
Like street food everywhere, salepi represents well-established local traditions. Here, a customer shares an exchange with a vendor next to his cart stocked with the essentials for making and serving salepi.