The Origins Of NYC's Famous Pastrami Sandwich

What is New York City without the pastrami sandwich? A classic at Jewish delis, these sandwiches can now be found at non-Jewish delis, diners, and sometimes even corner stores. Typically served on rye bread, this sandwich is a simple one. A thick layer of pastrami slices topped with spicy mustard is all that's truly needed for a pastrami creation. A side of dill pickles doesn't hurt, though (via Taste Atlas).

While Katz's deli, the oldest surviving one in New York, is still known for its pastrami sandwiches, Sussman Volk, a Lithuanian immigrant, is often credited with popularizing the pastrami sandwich. Volk sold pastrami on rye out of his deli on Delancey Street, but the origins of pastrami are, in fact, not Lithuanian — the recipe was given to him by a friend (via Meat & Poultry). Whether he was the first to serve it in the way we are more familiar with, we will never know, but we do know how pastrami became an NYC staple — and that's what's important here.

It came from a Romanian dish called pastirma

While already typically associated with Jewish delis, the pastrami sandwich is the epitome of American Jewish food. My Jewish Learning shares that pastrami actually came from a Romanian dish called pastirma, made traditionally from goose. As goose was not as available once Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, they turned to what they could get their hands on — beef. Interestingly enough, the name change from pastirma to pastrami is said to have come from pastrami being served alongside salami — combine the two names, and you get pastrami. 

Pastrami is made by soaking brisket in a brine for a few days up to a week. The meat is then smoked and sliced. The original reason for preparing meat this way was for preservation. While that is not needed anymore, it stuck around because people can't get enough. Using this method of curing and smoking leads modern-day chefs to "pastrami" other forms of meat, such as salmon. According to Taste Cooking, Parke Ulrich, owner of Waterbar in San Francisco, believes curing salmon before smoking helps cut through the fat, and the strong pastrami spices pair well with the rich fish. Curious about trying a pastrami sandwich? Check out the best Jewish delis in the US!