Pastrami – What is it anyway?


Years and years ago, when I lived in New York  my Saturday routine involved a purposeful late afternoon meal.  This meal  took care of lunch and dinner on a young and budget conscious eater while also fueling me for a very long evening of dancing and reveling. The meal of choice was a pastrami sandwich with mustard on rye usually at Second Ave Deli.  Lately I’ve been nostalgic for  this sandwich and the East Coast–fall does it, it’s the one time of year that it breaks my heart not to be there.  Baseball, football, apples, cheddar, foliage, crisp air…sigh–so my inclination for this sandwich has only grown stronger.

Since moving to the other coast I have lost all hope of finding that sandwich of days gone by.  But life has a way of presenting you with gifts. On Saturday I found myself at the SFFP market a bit later than I like to be.  I have a very low threshold for tourists and crowds. The last stop was Golden Gate Meat Company where I decided to feed my melancholy by ordering a pastrami and spicy mustard sandwich for $7.00.  The sandwich, served on a soft torpedo roll with just the right amount of pull and chew was the perfect balance of fattiness and spicy mustard.  Mekhaye!

But as I savored every bite I began to wonder, what, exactly is pastrami? To make pastrami, you start by making corned beef.  This cut is a beef brisket soaked in brine and a bit of sugar and spice. If you decide to smoke the corned beef, it becomes pastrami. And as we all know smoking elevates meat and adds flavor. Pastrami is traditionally made from the forequarter of the animal from a cut known as the deckle or plate, but is sometimes made from brisket. 

So what’s the corn got to do with the name ‘corned beef’ anyway? Well it is called "corned" because the grains of salt used in the brine in days of yore were referred to as corns. And the word pastrami is derived from the Romanian word pastra, "to preserve." Pastrami is thought to have originated in Eastern Europe and the Levant. Here the meat was preserved by a combination of salt rub and air drying.

It’s still not like home but that’s OK.  Food is as much about place as what you are eating.  This sandwich is damn near close!