Sahlep, a hot, milky drink made from the powdered root of a type of orchid, may be a sweet wintertime treat in Istanbul, but for the roving vendors who sell the beverage from rolling carts, life is anything but sweet. Faced with growing pressure from municipal authorities, who are working to crack down on unlicensed street vendors, Istanbul's sahlep sellers are struggling to survive, with their carts sometimes confiscated.
Tagging along with one seller named Huseyin Kozak as he cruises the snowy streets of Istanbul's Beyoglu neighborhood, Culinary Backstreets in a new article offers a look into the life of the city's sahlep sellers -- most of whom come from the same village in Turkey's Isparta region -- and the history behind their work. From the article:
By the name of the place, you’d expect the Sütçüler (“Milkmen” in English) district near Isparta in southern Turkey to be a dairyland paradise, thick on the ground with men carrying buckets sloshing fresh milk, cheese wheels stacked in cool dark sheds, verdant hills freckled with cows. But there are no milkmen in Sütçüler, at least not in the wintertime. The area’s name actually has nothing to do with anything going on in Sütçüler itself.
The mayor of Sütçüler, Hüseyin Müftüoğlu confirmed this over the phone. “In 1938, the decision was made to name this area Sütçüler. For more than 100 years, in Istanbul, in every neighborhood there’s a milkman and almost surely, that man is from here, one of our Sütçüler brothers,” Müftüoğlu told us.
From a distance, it might seem like these Ispartans are dairymen, providing an important link between city folk and the farms back in the village, but spending some time among those from Sütçüler, we found their most common feature to be their willingness to grind out a living by dragging a push cart through the streets of Istanbul, winter after winter.
“There are no trades in Sütçüler. Men from Sütçüler used to be milkmen and now they are all sahlep sellers, nothing else,” said Osman, a taxi driver who himself narrowly escaped the fate of his kinsmen. “My uncles, cousins, everyone in my circle. All of them are sahlepci in Istanbul.”
As markets with dairy sections stocked with long-lasting UHT milk replaced the need for milkmen, the men of Sütçüler are now mostly in the business of sahlep, a hot and gooey, eggnog-like drink sold from pushcarts throughout Turkish cities in the winter months. If you’ve ever heard the bark of a sahlepci and seen that bright brass samovar fastened onto a rickety cart turn a corner, then you’ve most likely encountered a man from Sütçüler.
The full article can be found here. Meanwhile, below is a companion video shot by Istanbul-based photographer Monique Jaques which offers a nice taste of the daily struggles faced by sahlep seller Huseyin Kozak: