It’s a 16-degree December day, and fierce gusts make it feel even colder. Instead of shivering in the wind, Ibrahim Sergi and I are perched at a sunny table inside Sergi Coffee & Roast, his West Babylon café, sipping a warm, creamy drink that is new to me but Sergi has been drinking since he was a child.
“Everybody in Turkey drinks salep in winter,” said Sergi, who grew up in Kayseri, in the center of the country. This blend of ground wild-orchid tubers, warm milk and sugar is ubiquitous in homes and eateries across the country, where it is thought of as a medicinal, namely to soothe the digestive system. Salep’s history as a beverage stretches back to at least ancient Rome — where drinks made from ground orchid tubers were deemed aphrodisiacs.
I take a sip of my first salep, which resembles a pale smoothie: It’s earthy, viscous and vaguely floral, flavors that are hard to parse because they are so unfamiliar. I dust some cinnamon across the top, as is done in Turkey, and the added layer of spice makes the hot drink instantly cosseting.
Ever since Sergi moved to the U.S. from Istanbul twenty years ago (there, he was a philosophy teacher), he has hunted for brewed salep each winter. “I’d search, but couldn’t find it anywhere,” Sergi said. After he opened his coffee bar, he enlisted a family member to track down a source for the flour, which is ground from the roots of wild orchids foraged in the mountains of Turkey, so he could make it himself.
It takes about 30 minutes for Sergi to brew a batch of salep, which he does three or four times a week, decanting it into an shiny Turkish urn and selling 8-ounce cups for $3.50 each. Mindful of his American customers, Sergi also offers salep versions flavored with espresso, mocha, caramel and marshmallow. I try each: The espresso salep is not quite a match for Sergi’s excellent house-roasted coffee, but the mocha salep is rich and chocolaty and the caramel version is like liquid candy, without the walloping sweetness of some caramel lattes.
Sergi Coffee & Roast, 780 Sunrise Hwy., West Babylon, 631-526-9982, sergicoffee.com.