In the Jewish deli world, pastrami is king. Except for where it's not.
Take a trip to Canada, particularly Montreal, and you'll find a whole different animal: smoked meat.
Sure, it looks a lot like pastrami, and it tastes pretty similar, and the general recipe of cured, smoked, and steamed fatty beef is more or less the same. But go ahead, tell that to the Jewish deli cognoscenti. See how that goes over.
What exactly are pastrami and smoked meat? Should one of them win the North American deli crown? And what makes them different?
I spoke with Eater's Robert Sietsema, who in 2009 wrote an article for Gourmet about the war of the rosy meats. "Good luck!" he said of the assignment, before describing smoked meat as "darker red, greasier, and less smoky." The catch? His visit to Schwartz's, Montreal's most famous smoked meat slinger, where he found the smoked meat "smokier and richer" than New York pastrami.
This story, I realized, is going to be harder than I thought.
Where do Pastrami and Smoked Meat Come From?
Let's take a few steps back: where do pastrami and smoked meat come from? How did they become fixtures of the Jewish deli pantheon?
David Sax, the Toronto-based food journalist and author of Save the Deli (and most recently The Tastemakers, an analysis of food trends), traces their origins to a Romanian product called pastramă, a thinly sliced cold smoked (read: not cooked) cured meat that's traditionally made of mutton or pork and rubbed with spices like coriander, pepper, and paprika. (In Turkey, a similar product called pastırma is made with beef.)
"The origin of the word is Turkish," explains Lara Rabinovitch, a Los Angeles-based food journalist and self-styled "doctor of pastrami" with a PhD from NYU in modern Jewish history. "Romania was part of the Ottoman Empire, and if you look up the word 'pastırma' in Turkish, the word bastır means 'to press' or 'to cure.' And it's the same origin of the word in Romanian."
Pastramă is more like ham than pastrami, but it was popular among Jews who brought it to the New World in the 19th century, the bulk of whom settled in New York and Montreal. Early proto-pastrami was sold in Romanian delis in both cities and over time transformed into the two products we know today.
In the Americas, Rabinovitch explains, Romanian cooks switched their pastramă meat from mutton or pork to beef. Kosher Jews, who made up the majority of Romanian immigrants, could not eat pork, and beef was much more readily available in the United States than it was in Eastern Europe, especially as the meat industry mechanized during the 20th century.
Sietsema agrees with this take but is quick to point out the historical problem: "What Jews brought with them from Romania bears no resemblance to pastrami. So how did they come up with pastrami? That's a real mystery."
The answer, he suspects, is the cross-cultural diffusion that so characterized Jewish ghettos in 19th century North America, where immigrants from a dozen European countries suddenly became neighbors. "There was a lot more swapping around of ideas between Jewish communities around the country and around the world than one might suspect." Almost every culture in Europe smokes something—ham, cheese, beer—and any combination of them may be responsible for the smoked meat and pastrami we know today.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Jews started to leave New York, New Jersey, and Quebec for cities farther west, and they took their pastrami with them. While significant Jewish populations already existed around Canada, many Jews and other Anglophones left Montreal in the 1970s as the sovereignty movement, which aimed to separate Quebec from Canada and form an independent Francophone state, redefined Québécois society. When expatriate Montreal Jews struggled to find smoked meat in Toronto and elsewhere, they made their own. Today you can find smoked meat across Canada (though it's sometimes called pastrami!), and the U.S.'s pastrami tradition survives on both coasts.
The Hard Differences
The way Sax sees it, the main differences between pastrami and smoked meat come down to the cut of beef and the spice rub it's coated with.
"Pastrami in the United States is almost always made with navel, a cut similar to belly, or what you would make bacon out of on a pig. So it's a little bit denser, a lot fattier, and it's less stringy," notes Sax. On the other hand, Montreal-style smoked meat comes from brisket, as navel is much harder to find in Canada because of its British beef cut tradition. "Smoked meat made from brisket can be stringier and a lot softer if it's steamed right. [Brisket's] not fattier throughout the cut, but it has a larger cap of fat, and it has a stringier texture, more fibrous. American-style pastrami is more marbled with fat and has a denser texture."
In Canadian butchery, the cut called brisket comprises parts of the American brisket and navel (combined the two parts are called "whole brisket.") As such, if you go to a Canadian deli and order fatty, medium, or lean smoked meat, you'll receive a sandwich with varying amounts of meat from each portion of the whole brisket.
Navel and brisket were once some of the cheapest cuts on a cow, but these days their prices have risen much like short ribs and oxtail. So if you step outside the shrinking world of hardcore Jewish delis you'll find pastrami made with brisket and cheaper cuts like top round. Boar's Head makes a top round pastrami that's much leaner than brisket or navel (they also make a pricier brisket version). While lean pastrami is the worst faux pas for pastrami lovers, it appeals to a broader group of deli meat consumers, and leaner meat is easier to slice into cold cuts.
As for the rub, Sax goes on: "Generally pastrami is just spiced with coriander and black pepper, and often sugar." But for smoked meat, "there's really no sugar on the rub. It's generally black pepper, coriander seed, more garlic, and sometimes mustard seed, bay leaf, and other aromatics."
The Makings of the Meats
As general manager Frank Silva describes, Schwartz's Deli was founded in Montreal in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Romanian immigrant. Schwartz originally delivered smoked meat by horse and buggy for other wholesalers before realizing he could make a better and cheaper product himself by not spending money on chemical preservatives.
Schwartz's begins their smoked meat by marinating raw brisket with a secret blend of spices for 10 to 12 days. They smoke the brisket for eight to nine hours and steam them for another three before slicing them by hand and serving them on rye bread with mustard. As Silva put it, "by being cheap, [Schwartz] created something that we still do the same way!" Today, Schwartz's is synonymous with smoked meat, and is a Montreal institution, beloved by Anglophones and Francophones alike.
"The Montreal product, while terrific, is different than ours," explains Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky's, which since 2009 has led a resurgence of Toronto's once dying deli culture. "I guess I made a slightly odd choice when I decided to call what I was doing 'smoked meat' instead of the more common Toronto term, 'pastrami,' and that, I think from a marketing perspective, I was looking to attract those people that David Sax refers to: the expatriate Montrealers."
Caplansky noted one key difference between his smoked meat and Schwartz's. "Schwartz's doesn't wood smoke their meat. Montreal banned wood smoking in restaurants many, many years ago. So Schwartz's use an old electric smoker and the smoke isn't the same part of the flavor profile." Silva confirms this claim—Schwartz's hasn't wood smoked their meat for nearly 50 years.
Caplansky uses a wood smoker to produce what he proudly calls "Toronto smoked meat." But even an electric smoker can elicit some smoky flavor. Sax and Sietsema, who both consider Schwartz's smoked meat plenty smoky, point out how a brisket's rendering fat produces its own smoke, flavoring the meat in its own way.
We've already documented the pastrami-making process at Katz's, New York's pastrami top dog. It's similar to the process at Schwartz's but with some subtle differences. Katz's uses navel for pastrami and brisket for corned beef. Both meats are cured, or corned, for about three weeks before the navels are wood-smoked for 48 to 72 hours at very low heat. The rub, which consists of garlic, salt, pepper, and coriander, goes on right before smoking. Afterwards the smoked navels are boiled for several hours, steamed for 30 minutes, and sliced by hand.
Mile End shook up New York's deli scene in 2010 when Canadian expat Noah Bernamoff and his wife Rae Cohen brought the Montreal deli tradition to Brooklyn. Since then, Mile End's modern take on traditional Jewish cooking has been a resounding success, the introductory deli to a new generation of New Yorkers. That includes their Montreal-style smoked meat, which is part of a menu that managing partner Joel Tietolman describes as a way "to bring about, in a new way, the old traditions that have kind of faded."
Mile End starts their smoked meat with whole brisket that production chef Josh Sobel trims to maintain consistent fat and juiciness in the end product.
After that the briskets are dry cured with a mix of garlic, salt, pink curing salt, and other spices.
After 12 days, the briskets receive some extra rub before going into a wood smoker for 12 to 14 hours.
The next morning, the smoked briskets are put into the refrigerator, where they stay for a week while the flavors mature. Finally, they're transported to the restaurants, steamed for one to two hours, hand cut, and served.
In Los Angeles, a thriving deli culture exists that some, including Sax, believe is even superior to New York's. Like Katz's and Schwartz's, Los Angeles has its stalwarts: Langer's and Canter's. As Jacqueline Canter describes, her grandfather, Ben Canter, spurred by the depression, left New Jersey and opened a New York-style deli on the other side of the country. Pioneers like him have ensured that traditional New York-style pastrami extends well beyond New York.
Meat in Review
At the end of the day, pastrami and smoked meat have more similarities than differences, and there's plenty of variation among the two products. But some hard differences stand out: pastrami is usually made with dense, fatty navel while smoked meat comes from leaner, stringier brisket. Pastrami is usually brined while smoked meat is dry rubbed with curing salt. Smoked meat spices are a little more intense with a darker flavor profile compared to pastrami's sweeter spice rub. And smoked meat typically has a darker red hue while pastrami is rosy pink.
"People ask me, 'what's the most authentic pastrami?' or 'when was the first pastrami served?'" Rabinovitch tells me. "And there's no answer to either of those questions." Just like pizza and burgers, it's hard to point to one particular style and say "there, that's the original." Besides, chances are the most "authentic" deli sandwich for you is simply the first one that had an impact on your life.
Debating the differences between delis has a way of moving people apart: smoked meat vs. pastrami. Katz's vs. Langer's. Old school vs. new wave. But at the end of the day it's all meat cut from the same cloth, part of a centuries-old story of immigrants preserving tradition while adapting to somewhere new. That's a sandwich we can all get behind, no matter the particulars.