My earliest memory of an orchid is a corsage. Big, fat, full and fabulous, the flowers of those exotic cattleya hybrids were bred by the millions for a single night of splendor at charity balls and high school dances across the United States. But the ravishing floral displays of these plants represent only one small part of the orchid story.
Looking into the ethnobotany of the family Orchidaceae, I discovered that the plants are also used as medicines, religious charms, cosmetics and musical instruments, as well as perfumes, food flavorings and aphrodisiacs. Pursuing the food aspect of orchids, I happened upon a strange tale about the terrestrial orchids of Turkey. The story described a dessert made from wild orchid tubers, milk and sugar. The frozen mixture was beaten with metal rods and eaten with a knife and fork, and it's capable of being used as a jump rope.
Orchid ice cream jump rope? I have spent the last 20 years chasing down story leads like this. It is the sort of material that keeps me awake at night, and so on a recent morning I found myself standing at the rail of an aging ferryboat as it crossed the Bosphorus, headed for the Asian shore of Istanbul. With the domed silhouette of Hagia Sophia receding in our wake, I contemplated a dessert that, according to experts, could heal the spleen, prevent cholera and tuberculosis, facilitate childbirth, stop hands and feet from shaking and improve one's sex life. These product claims seemed doubtful even by Western marketing standards, and to investigate the tantalizing rumors, I was on my way to visit Ali Kumbasar, a man who has been making orchid ice cream in Istanbul for nearly 30 years.
Ali and his four brothers run Ali Usta, an ice cream shop located in the fashionable neighborhood of Moda. It was there that I took my first bite of salepi dondurma, the orchid ice cream of Turkey. Although Ali Usta offers 32 flavors, I was interested in the original flavor, which looked and tasted somewhat like vanilla. It was creamy, like gelato, and had a smoothness and elasticity that was surprisingly chewy and delicious.
Ali explained that dondurma is the Turkish word for ice cream and that the essential ingredient of orchid ice cream is salep, a whitish flour milled from the dried tubers of certain wild terrestrial orchids. Such orchids grow throughout Europe and the Middle East, but the orchid tubers used for this uniquely Turkish delicacy come from the mountainous edges of the country's Anatolian plateau. Species of the genus Orchis are said to be the best sources of orchid flour, and villagers commonly collect the paired tubers during the spring and summer months.
Salep dealers say that the most valuable tubers for ice cream are the ones that dry to the translucent yellow color of alabaster. This translucence indicates a more complex flavor and a higher percentage of mucilage, a gluelike substance that gives orchid ice cream its distinctive firmness and makes it necessary to use a knife and fork when eating it.
The word "salep" comes from the Arabic sahlab, which means "fox testicles." Ali showed me a handful of the dried tubers, and although I have never had the opportunity to examine a fox that closely, the paired, ovoid spheres did bear a striking resemblance to that part of the male anatomy. Ancient accounts referred to this similarity, and the first-century Greek physician Dioscorides recommended the use of orchid tubers as an aphrodisiac. The word orchis in Greek means "testicle," and so it seems that human interest in orchids was originally focused on the erotic aftereffects of eating the tubers rather than on the cultivation of plants for their showy floral displays.
"Fox testicle ice cream" -- the literal translation of salepi dondurma -- didn't seem like an appropriate name for the dessert dish filled with colorful scoops of ice cream placed on the table in front of me. The cold, silky orbs held the familiar flavors of apricot, pistachio, red currant, peach and vanilla, but there was a subtle aftertaste that was entirely new -- slightly sweet with a nutty flavor similar to dried milk powder. It also had a hint of mushrooms, yak butter or goats on a rainy day -- not unpleasant, but an earthy, lanolin fragrance that added an intriguing dimension to the ice cream as it slowly melted in my mouth.
Western food scholars continue to debate the precise dates, locations and
origins of frozen desserts, but most Turkish ice cream enthusiasts agree
that salepi dondurma probably came from Maras, a city in south-central
Turkey. Several species of orchids grow nearby, milk is available from
cows, sheep and goats and snow is abundant for the freezing process.
Similar orchid habitats exist elsewhere in the country, but for the Turkish
people, Maras is the home of orchid ice cream.
A hot drink also called salep is made from dried orchid tuber flour, sugar,
milk and cinnamon. For hundreds of years it has been served during the
cold winter months in Turkey and neighboring areas, and when men claim that
the beverage is used for strengthening the body, it is clear which part of
the body they are referring to.
Ali speculated that the first batch of salepi dondurma was a mistake -- the
result of a pot of hot salep freezing overnight. In an attempt to save his
valuable ingredients, the salep vendor probably chipped and pried at the
frozen ball of salep with a metal rod to extract the mixture from the pot.
The stiffened mass of milk, sugar and salep turned out to be edible. In
time, salep vendors developed the technique of kneading the mass of
dondurma to a smooth consistency, using hand-forged metal rods still
manufactured by Turkish blacksmiths.
Ali advised me to go to Maras if I wanted to learn more about traditional
salepi dondurma. There, I could meet the master ice cream beaters and
follow the entire operation, from the collecting of orchid tubers to the
The modern city of Maras, with its rapidly growing population of more than
350,000 people, is nestled at the base of the Taurus Mountains. Within
minutes of my arrival in the city, I met Mevlut Dogan, an impeccably
dressed sidewalk sage with a four-foot-wide handlebar mustache -- the tips
of which were pinned to the shoulders of his suit jacket. Mevlut offered to
guide me to my first ice cream shop in Maras.
At Yasar Pastenesi, the most elegant dondurma shop in town, I watched a man
attack the inside of a metal container with a four-foot-long rod. As he
jabbed and twisted his weapon, throwing his entire weight into his work, a
crowd looked on. From a distance, it appeared as if he was attempting to
pry tar from the bottom of the container, but he was merely scooping out
portions of ice cream. He reached into the container and produced a white
lump of ice cream that he shoved onto a cone, dipped into a bowl of ground
pistachios and handed to the first customer in line. When our turn came,
Mevlut reminded me, "If you eat dondurma, your sex life get stronger. It
also prevent you getting lump on your back, and keep your chest soft ... and
heal bronchitis, too."
After I ate the dondurma, Mevlut introduced me to the store's owner,
Mohammed Kambur, a fourth-generation ice cream maker and the city's largest
producer of salepi dondurma. Mohammed told me that orchid ice cream had
been made in Maras for more than 300 years. His great-grandfather had
brought snow and ice down from the mountains to use in freezing the
dondurma mixture in tubs of salted ice water. He had stirred the dondurma
by hand, pounded it to a smooth consistency with metal rods and then
stretched it by hand.
To show me how far the business had come since those days, Mohammed took me
on a tour of his modern ice cream factory, with its stainless-steel
machinery and crisply uniformed workers. He uses gelato machines imported
from Italy, although the final product is still beaten and kneaded with
metal rods for at least 20 minutes to develop the proper degree of
In Mohammed's office, I examined a framed photograph of a young boy jumping
rope. Mohammed wasted no time pointing out that the thick white rope was a
length of orchid ice cream. Clearly, this was a dessert to be reckoned with.
Mohammed introduced me to Mehmet Adnan Dedeoglu, who runs a wholesale
business in salep flour, morel mushrooms, beeswax, cologne, cooking oil
and fox skins. Mehmet brought out strands of dried tubers for me to look
at. He depends on villagers and nomadic shepherds to bring him salep, which
he grades and then sells loose, on strings, or in powdered form. Most
people prefer to buy the dried tubers because some dealers cut the salep
flour with inferior ingredients. The best quality is known as salepi Maras.
It comes from the high mountains and sells for about $20 per
We also called on Kemal Kucukonderuzunkoluk (pronounced
Kucukonderuzunkoluk), who operates one of the oldest ice cream stores in
Maras. After 50 years of beating salepi dondurma with an iron rod, Kemal
was still enthusiastic about his ice cream, and he insisted that I try it
every way it comes: with baklava, shaved chocolate, hazelnuts, fresh
strawberries and sprinkled with ground pistachios. The dondurma arrived
on plates, in dessert dishes and on chocolate-dipped cones, but
thankfully, not in the form of a jump rope, because leaping off the ground
was clearly out of the question.
It is still too early to evaluate the long-term health benefits that may
result from eating this quantity of orchid ice cream, but so far the
prognosis is excellent. No signs of cholera or tuberculosis, no lump on the
back and no problems with the spleen. As for orchid ice cream's effect on
one's sex life? Opinions vary and the debate continues. It seems to affect
people in different ways, but if the long lines of men waiting for their
ice cream cones in Maras are any indication, we can live in hope.