Salep and Boza – History and Recipe of Special Turkish Winter Drinks

A glass of salep (sahlep) served in a cafe in Istanbul, Turkey.

by Erlend Geerts

in Cafés, Restaurants

When the winter comes two traditional and historic drinks, salep and boza, color up the cold grey days. Salep with its ancient medical history warms you up. Boza with its nutritious thick texture cools you down. If you happen to be in Istanbul during winter, these drinks most definitely offer a different experience to your taste buds.

Boza – One of the Oldest Turkish Drinks

Boza is one of the oldest Turkish beverages, and is made from fermented grains. In Turkey mostly durum wheat is used and in other countries corn, barley, rye, oats, wheat, buckwheat … It contains nutritious values like protein, calcium, iron, zinc, phosphorus, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. It gives your stomach a full feeling, so it’s better not to drink boza during or right before your meal.

History of Boza

A glass of Boza served in Vefa Bozacısı, Istanbul, Turkey.

A glass of Boza.

Central Asian Turks began to make boza in the 10th century. In the 16th century boza was banned by Sultan Selim II because of the opium used in the mixture. Also in the 17th century, boza got its share from the alcoholic drinks prohibition of Sultan Mehmet IV since excessive fermentation caused a higher alcoholic level.

In the 17th century Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi reported that boza was largely drunk by janissaries in the army and it contained a low level of alcohol. So, it was tolerated due to its warming and strengthening effect for the soldiers.

In the 19th century, the sweet and non-alcoholic version became popular at the Ottoman Palace, and also in society. Hacı Sadık Bey is the founder of today’s most well-known boza brand Vefa.

In 1870 he immigrated from Albania and settled in the Vefa district in Istanbul. He reinterpreted the thin and sour boza. His version was thicker, less tart, and became a brand in 1876. Today the brand still produces boza between October and April.

Where to Drink Boza

The facade of historic Vefa Bozacısı in Istanbul, Turkey.

The facade of Vefa Bozacısı.

A few decades ago you could hear boza sellers shouting to sell freshly prepared boza on the streets during winter evenings. Parallel with the industrial development and rapid growing consumption patterns, boza claimed its place in the stores since the early 2000s.

During the winter you can find boza almost everywhere: in supermarkets, patisseries and cafes. I recommend paying a visit to the historic Vefa Bozacısı in Vefa Fatih, Katip Çelebi Cad. No:104/1. Atatürk drank boza in this shop, and his glass is still on display.


A wild orchid, the basis of the Turkish drink salep.

A wild orchid, the basis of salep.

Orchids have fascinated mankind for more than 3000 years, not only with its aesthetic beauty but also with its medical might. The idea of making a drink out of this enchanting flower belongs to Turks, thanks to their religious belief. In the 8th century, Turkish people converted to Islam. According to the belief, they are not allowed to drink alcoholic beverages. So they came up with the idea of salep, a hot milky drink to warm you up during the cold winters.

Tubers of wild orchids are washed, boiled, dried and finally grinded into flour. This is the essence of this soft and warming, but also medical drink. The healing power of salep comes from glucomannan, which heals respiratory problems like bronchitis and cough. It empowers the heart and the mind, stops diarrhea and warms up the body. Especially if it’s consumed with ginger and/or cinnamon, its effect is amplified.

Where to Find Salep

A delicious cup of salep found in Istanbul, Turkey.

A delicious cup of salep.

This precious flower grows almost everywhere in Turkey, and there are lots of varieties. Yet, some varieties are facing extinction. To get 1 kilo of salep flour, more than 1000 orchid tubers are pulled out of the soil. And it takes up to 7 or 8 years for the orchid’s tubers to grow sufficiently to use for salep production. Therefore, export of salep is prohibited. However, instant versions with salep flavor are exported.

The two common places to drink a nice warm cup of salep are Emirgan Sütiş (Sakıp Sabancı Caddesi, No:1/3; Emirgan, Sarıyer) and Öz Süt (İstinye Park AVM).

Home-made Salep

It is easy to make salep at home … as long as you can get the salep flour. For six people, mix 2 tea spoons of salep flour with 2,5 tea spoons of sugar. Slowly add 3,5 glasses of cold milk, and stir. Finally boil the mixture while stirring on low fire for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve hot in a cup dusting with grinded cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger on top.

Instant and Ready to Drink Versions

Or you can also get the instant versions. Warm milk, add the flour, stir and finally add cinnamon. Unfortunately, they have more salep flavor than real salep, some as little as 0,3%. Some brands have even ready to drink versions. Those you just need to heat, add cinnamon and you’re ready to serve.

Photo Sources [1] [2] [3] [4]

What's Next

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Carolina_D February 26, 2013 at 8:54 am

I went to uni in Ankara and often had this (salep) at local bakeries, along with a sweet baked treat. I had no idea of how it was made, but it made it much easier to go to school on cold winter’s days. I miss it a lot, and will certainly try making it myself now from your recipe. I actually thought it was dusted with nutmeg rather than cinnamon, but that could be a ‘false’ memory. Thanks for this.


Erlend Geerts February 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Hi Carolina,

Thanks a lot for your sweet remarks.



Wuggy March 31, 2014 at 2:12 am

Salep is often sold from big brass urns on barrows, with a flame keeping it hot. And it can be VERY hot, so watch yourself! Turkish friends seem to regard it as a drink for babies, old people, or people recovering from illness. It has a comforting milky taste, especially nice with a sprinkling of cinnamon on the frothy top!


Lynda November 25, 2014 at 4:01 pm

I disagree with the above comment in that many young people can be seen in the cafes here drinking Sahlep. I live in the south of Turkey and a popular treat here is to have the Sahlep with a scoopful of good vanilla ice cream. Mado make it very nice..


Pat O'Hara January 5, 2015 at 9:50 am

Thank you for solving this mystery for us! Last night was dark, cold, and rainy, and here in our rented home in Emirgan, we heard a new street vendor calling something we couldn’t quite understand. Most of our street vendors visit us during the daylight, so we were curious. The vendor spoke no English and our Turkish was too limited to understand his explanation. Needless to say, our curiosity won, and we bought a liter of white liquid that we thought might be Salep, but which I now see is Boza. It is delicious.


Erlend Geerts January 5, 2015 at 6:53 pm

Afiyet Olsun!


Elle March 20, 2015 at 3:59 am

I lived in Izmir as a child but returned to the U.S. many years ago. I have searched and begged for Sahlep, which I had on visits to Istanbul and Ankara–and possibly Bursa? Would they have made it for us there? I was certain I had not dreamed it but no-one in restaurants ot stores here ever knew what I was talking about! How can that be? Even recent Turkish emigrants, but perhaps they were just trying to tell me it’s impossible to get here.

Such memories! Yes, Wuggy, I remember it was always served excruciatingly hot!


Sarah March 23, 2015 at 6:33 am

I visited Istanbul on late November 2014. Definitely I loved their traditional drink, Salep. It’s worth to try if you haven’t.


Wendy April 23, 2015 at 9:54 pm

Where can i get the salep flour. I never heard if it. I discovered the word playing ” words with friends” and I looked up what the word meant. I’m interested in it for medicinal factors. I live in San Diego, california. Thank you all my best


Erlend Geerts April 24, 2015 at 6:45 pm

Hi Wendy,

It’s a type of wild orchid, which only seems to grow in Turkey. I’m sorry.

Kind regards,


Bob September 17, 2015 at 8:29 am

you can sometimes find sahlep mixes at middle eastern grocery stores. They won’t be pure sahlep though. The orchids used (there are several) are actually threatened because of overcollecting. Ther is a way to leave half of the double bulb for next year but villagers generally don’t do this.

Boza – some boza is made from bulgur and sometimes some rice or even corn meal, each gives a slightly different flavor. But the best (Vefa for example) is made with millet. You can make your own. However disregard the suggestion to use commercial bread yeast. This results from a misunderstanding/mistranslation of “maya” (starter). Yeast is called maya in Turkish but so is yogurt starter, kefir starter and sourdough. Sourdough starter is what you want; it contains the yeast and bacteria necessary to produce the tart flavor. Bread yeast will give you alcohol, lots of it.

Or you can make your own. Make a small amount of millet/bulgur and sugar slurry with the proportions given in any recipe you prefer. Cover with a cloth and leave out in a cool place. In a week or so it will get bubbly. It will likely smell off. That’s okay, you aren’t going to drink this! Just repeat the process, using a few spoonfuls of your first batch, discarding the rest. Th next batch will get bubbly faster but it’s still not quite there. Take some of that and inoculate a third small batch. This will ferment in a day or so and you should have a clean, tart smell. If it tastes okay, go ahead and make a full-sized batch. From here on out, just save some of each batch to start the next.

What has happened? The wild lactobacillus bacteria uses the alcohol produced by wild yeasts to make lactic acid. Lactic acid kills off the undesirable bacteria, so as they become the dominant bacteria in the mix, they ferment it quickly, preventing the wrong kinds of bacteria from getting a foothold. The process of making sourdough starter from scratch is similar though it takes a bit longer.


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