The strange story of how pastrami got to the Jewish deli

Photo via Flickr/yisris

The strange story of how pastrami got to the Jewish deli

History + Culture

The strange story of how pastrami got to the Jewish deli

In the U.S. – at least in most major urban areas ­– we tend to think of pastrami as the quintessential Jewish deli meat. There are few sandwiches greater than flavorful slices of cured and smoked beef served hot on rye bread with a smear of mustard, and the best can be found at Jewish delis. Few people realize that the original pastrami was made of either sheep, or, occasionally, pork – a meat that’s forbidden under kosher law.

Pastrami’s roots are actually in Romania, and getting to know the abundant types of Romanian pastrami is a much bigger adventure than becoming familiar with the singular variety at your local deli. According to the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, “Pastramă is a popular traditional Romanian cured meat made mainly from mutton or lamb. The word pastrami comes from the Romanian words a pastra, which means “to keep” or “to preserve.”

Preparation of traditional pastramă in Romania involves curing meat in a spice and salt rub and then aging it at cool temperatures. Some pastramă is also cold smoked, and while opinions vary as to whether this is traditional, over time smoking has come to be an accepted step in the process. Eventually this preserving technique was applied to all types of meat.

According to Bucharest resident Bogdan Voda, sheep pastramă is most popular in the mountain regions, while urbanites eat pork and beef varieties. “My parents and grandparents make their own pork pastramă,” Voda says. “My wife Gianina’s grandparents, who live in the Carpathian Mountains, still make a delicious sheep pastramă.”


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Urban dwellers in Bucharest and Romania’s other large cities typically purchase their pastramă either from specialty kiosks located within supermarkets or from “the peasant [farmers’] markets in the city, which are still producing pastramă in the old way,” according to Voda. There you can find pastramă made from pork, goose, beef and duck, as well as more traditional varieties.

In Romanian homes and restaurants, pastramă is an appetizer usually served with salad, cheese, and mămăligă (a Romanian corn porridge that resembles polenta). “The only time we eat it ‘American style,’ on a sandwich, would be at home,” Voda says.

Pastrami as Americans know it likely made its way to the U.S. via Romanian Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century who brought pastramă made of sheep with them when they settled in the neighborhood of Little Romania on New York’s Lower East Side, prompting a spate of delicatessens carrying a taste of “home.”

Beef soon became the go-to meat for this cured treat, as it was most readily available. No one is quite sure how the term pastramă morphed into “pastrami” as we call it today; some cite the term’s similarity to “salami,” which was gaining in popularity in nearby Little Italy at the time.

Jewish delis – and the old-world, locally produced pastrami they serve – are getting harder and harder to come by these days; as of 2016, it was estimated that there were only 15 Jewish delis left in New York, down from about 1,500 in the 1930s.

But there are still a few delis left doing things the original way. Katz’s Delicatessen, for example, has been producing pastrami on the Lower East Side at the edge of what was once Little Romania since 1888. The deli boasts that its beef spends three weeks brining, three days smoking, and three hours boiling. The chefs also steam the meat prior to hand slicing, the better to bring out those flavorful juices that drip all over the rye bread. Just don’t expect to find pastrami made out of pork or sheep.


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