Pastrami, long a fixture of delicatessen cuisine, can trace its roots back to the Ottoman Empire which flourished throughout Southeastern Europe from 1299 to 1923. It is believed that the first pastrami was produced in Turkey as a brined pork product seasoned with cloves, allspice, mustard, and paprika. As the Ottoman Empire spread from Turkey and the Middle East to Europe, pastrami was modified for Jewish cuisine by substituting beef for pork in order to adhere to Jewish kosher traditions. This beef product became popular in European regions with large Jewish populations, such as Romania and Armenia.
Pastrami first appeared in America in the latter half of the 19th century, when it was introduced by Jewish immigrants. Since the majority of Jewish immigrants arrived in New York City, it became a popular meat in many city eateries and remains so to this days. It is speculated that the traditional European name for this brined meat was “pastirma”, but was changed to “pastrami” in America in order to sound similar to salami, which was also a popular ethnic food at the time. The first recorded use of the word pastrami dates back to 1187, when the well-traveled pastirma was being sold to non-Jewish customers at a New York City meat market.
In many regions of Europe, pastirma is made from pork, beef, or mutton, but in American cuisine pastrami is made from the brisket cut of beef, which is the same cut of meat that is used to make corned beef. In Europe, pastrami or pastirma is often eaten as a stand-alone meal, served hot. However, in North America, pastrami s generally eaten as a cold cut on sandwiches.
The classic sandwich featuring this meat is pastrami on rye bread, which can be found in most diners and delicatessens throughout America and Canada. This combination is the forefather of the modern reuben sandwich, which is made with corned beef, sauerkraut, and rye bread. A “rachel” (a popular alternative to the reuben) is made with rye bread, pastrami, and cole slaw.
In Israel, pastrami is usually made from turkey or chicken to avoid any conflict with kashrut laws governing Jewish diet. Since there is no mention of poultry in the Torah, turkey and chicken are exempt from these religious laws. Whether your pastrami is made from pork, beef, turkey, or chicken, all pastrami is seasoned with the same traditional spices which provide pastrami with its unique and unmistakable flavor.