Pastrami Sandwich, Katz's Delicatessen, United States 1888. From Signature Dishes that Matter

Smart things to say about Signature Dishes: Pastrami Sandwich

Turkish preservation techniques, German bread and US beef all contributed towards this NY Jewish classic

It might be a quintessential Jewish New York dish, but the pastrami sandwich is actually the beautiful product of a number of different cultural collusions.

“More than the pizza slice or the bagel, the pastrami sandwich on rye bread is the most nostalgic dish for New Yorkers of a certain age," explains our new book, Signature Dishes that Matter. "Today, Katz’s is one of the longest-standing New York City delis serving it, having opened on the Lower East Side in 1888 and expanded in 1910, during a period when the neighborhood was home to many of the two million Yiddish-speaking Jews who immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe.”

This, however, isn’t the whole story. The USA’s booming dairy farms contributed to the popularity of beef among Jewish immigrants, as our new book notes. “The first Jewish delis celebrated an abundance of beef, since it was more available in America than it had ever been at home,” explains our new book. “Affordable kosher cuts such as brisket were brined to make corned beef, already an American classic."

Old-world preservative techniques came into play too. “What the Yiddish newcomers did in the 1880s was to adapt a recipe for preserving meat from Turk-ruled Southeastern Europe that rubbed the brined beef with spices like paprika, cinnamon, ginger, red pepper flakes, cloves, garlic, ground coriander, and peppercorns before smoking it for six or so hours, then boiling and steaming,” the text goes on to explain. “The resulting ‘pastrami’ (from the Turkush bisturma) was thinly sliced against the grain and served on bread, with a balance between fat and lean slices."


Signature Dishes that Matter
Signature Dishes that Matter

And even the bread the pastrami was served on, and the institutions where the sandwiches were made weren't wholly Jewish New Yorkers' creations. “The city had been transformed by the wave of Germans who arrived starting in 1840,” explains our new book, “bringing with them many things, including rye bread and the delicatessen, which, loosely translated, means 'to eat delicious things'.”

However, it was the city’s Jewish community that brought all these elements together, most famously at Katz’s Delicatessen, on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

“The pastrami recipe at Katz’s, which is now run by the third generation, is, of course, a closely held secret. When chefs from around the world visit New York, they always stop here. Besides pastrami’s renewed popularity in the US, a new generation of Jewish deli-style restaurants have popped up as far away as London and Paris — making this sandwich one of the most iconic in the world.”

For more on Jewish food, take a look at The Jewish Cookbook; and for more on familiar and fame-worthy dishes, order a copy of Signature Dishes That Matter here.