Corned beef, pastrami, cheese and sauerkraut. Classic New York dish

Pastrami: From Immigrant Roots to NYC Culinary Icon

Pastrami, the king of cured meats, boasts a rich history deeply intertwined with the immigrant story of New York City.  This savory, spiced beef has transcended its humble origins to become a beloved staple on deli menus and a culinary icon in its own right.

A Culinary Journey Across Continents

Pastrami Queen NYC

Pastrami Queen NYC


Pastrami’s roots can be traced back to pastırma, a cured meat dish originating in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey, Armenia, and surrounding regions).  Made from various cuts of beef, lamb, or camel, pastırma was a method of preserving meat before refrigeration.

With waves of Eastern European immigrants arriving in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pastrami found a new home.  Romanian Jews, familiar with similar cured meat preparations, began adapting the recipe using beef brisket, a cut readily available in the bustling city.

The Birth of New York Pastrami

New York pastrami, gherkins and sourdough bread deli sandwich

New York pastrami, gherkins, and sourdough bread deli sandwich


New York’s pastrami took on a distinct character.  Beef brisket, known for its rich marbling and flavorful fat, became the preferred cut.  The curing process incorporated pickling spices like coriander, black pepper, cloves, and mustard seeds, giving the meat its signature savory and slightly spicy flavor profile.  Smoking with wood chips added another layer of complexity, imbuing the pastrami with a smoky aroma and a reddish hue.

Finally, steaming the cured and smoked meat locked in the moisture, resulting in a melt-in-your-mouth texture that perfectly complemented the robust flavors.  This unique New York-style pastrami became a cornerstone of Jewish delis, offering a hearty and flavorful option for hungry patrons. You can still enjoy this iconic deli experience in NYC today at a variety of locations including Katz’s Delicatessen, Carnegie Deli, Pastrami Queen, 2nd Ave Deli, and Mile End Delicatessen just to name a few.


A Legacy of Flavor

New York sandwich with pastrami, sauce 1000 islands and sauerkraut

New York sandwich with pastrami, sauce 1000 islands and sauerkraut

Today, pastrami transcends its deli origins. It’s a versatile ingredient enjoyed in countless ways:


  • The Classic Pastrami on Rye: Thinly sliced pastrami piled high on rye bread with mustard and a pickle – a quintessential New York deli experience.
  • Reuben Sandwich: Pastrami teams up with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and dressing on rye bread for a flavor explosion.
  • Pastrami Hash: Diced pastrami adds a salty and smoky punch to breakfast hash.
  • Pastrami Pizza: A bold topping for the adventurous pizza lover.


A Taste of History on Every Bite

Pastrami is more than just a delicious cured meat; it’s a testament to the rich history of immigration in New York City.  Every bite carries the legacy of those who brought this culinary tradition across continents, adapting it to create a new and iconic dish. 

So next time you savor the smoky, succulent goodness of pastrami, take a moment to appreciate the fascinating journey that brought this flavor to your plate.

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