America is experiencing a pastrami renaissance, with soulfully cured, assertively spiced smoked meat turning up at top barbecue joints across the country. Darkly crusted with crushed coriander seed and fiery with black pepper. Meat so moist it squirts when you cut into it and so flavorful, you don't really need mustard, pickles, or rye bread.
And if you think the pastrami sun rises and sets on beef belly, well, check out the "porkstrami" at Tails & Trotters, a pork-centric butcher and deli in Portland, Oregon, or the lamb pastrami at Wente Vineyards in California. And while you're at it, dig your fork into New York chef David Burke's salmon pastrami or the electrifying kung pao pastrami stir-fry at Mission Chinese in San Francisco.
The truth is, pastrami is less a single dish than a process. I wouldn't be surprised if someone, somewhere, is about to apply it to tofu.
But I get ahead of myself, because I really wanted to begin this story not in New York or even the United States, but at the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul. It was here, on my Barbecue! Bible research tour, that I came across arm-long strips of meat caked with orange aromatic spices hanging unrefrigerated from shop rafters. I had eaten versions of this cured meat--usually beef, once camel--throughout the Middle and Near East, where it goes by the name of basturma (sometimes written pasturma). It was cured and dried, not smoked, and the spicing differed dramatically from the pepper-coriander rub on American pastrami. But the two--etymologically and gastronomically--shared a common ancestor.
Wikipedia hypothesizes that basturma originated with an Anatolian air-dried beef made since Byzantine times. Today, that beef would be salted, air-dried, pressed, then salved with a pungent paste of garlic, cumin, fenugreek, and hot paprika. This makes it food-safe for extended periods at room temperature and salty and spicy enough to enjoy sliced as an aperitif with raki (Turkish anise liqueur), scrambled with eggs, and even crisped over a charcoal grill.
Beef is the preferred meat today, but you also find basturma made with lamb, goat, water buffalo, and the aforementioned camel.
So how did Ottoman basturma become Jewish pastrami and how did it migrate from Istanbul to New York's Lower East Side? And why has a new generation of American pit masters embraced this classic deli meat with such gusto?
The most likely transfer agents were Jewish immigrants from Romania who brought pastrami to New York in the 1870s. In the Old Country they made it with the budget meat of the period--goose. Even cheaper in the New World was beef navel (a fatty cut from the steer's underbelly), which became the meat of choice for pastrami. Somewhere along the line, the name acquired an "i" at the end--perhaps to rhyme with another popular immigrant food of the period--salami.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.
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