During the chilly autumn and winter months this thick, salutary drink is still plied by salepi vendors in the center of Athens to comfortingly warm up the insides of all kinds of by-passers. Salepi (σαλέπι) is a pearly white, warm, viscous concoction made by boiling the pulverized root of a species of orchid—Orchis mascula—with water. Probably due to its suggestive milk or semen-like texture, salepi had been considered for centuries to be a stimulating aphrodisiac.
Among other orchid varieties from which salepi can be produced we find the Orchis latifolia, Orchis mascula, Orchis militaris and Orchis morio. The flower root is dried and pulverized and the off-white powder produced in not only used to make the salepi drink but is often an ingredient in many middle-eastern sweets such as ice-cream. The original recipe for kaimaki ice-cream, also known by its turkish name dondurma, includes this special powder which is responsible for its elastic consistency and twirly texture when cut. Salepi originated in Southeastern Europe, Asia Minor and various Indian regions. The word derives from the turkish “salep” which in turn derives from the arabic “thalab” which means fox (as mentioned by A. Davidson). It has thickening properties, is imported to Greece from Turkey and is rather rare due to its time consuming production process.
Nowadays in Greece, various ice cream recipes feature unique flavors, the most common probably being Pagoto Kaimaki (Παγωτό Καϊμάκι) made from mastic-resin which gives it an almost chewy texture and including salepi, used as a thickening agent to increase resistance to melting; both give the ice cream a distinct taste.
If you ever come across this unique drink be sure to try it, although rare in Greece it is common and popular in Turkey and is served in most Istanbul cafes.