The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t choke on the pastrami!

Q: I’m shocked, shocked. How could Pat say on the radio that a nice Yiddish word like “pastrami” comes from Turkish? I nearly choked on a hot pastrami sandwich from the 2nd Ave Deli while listening to her on my iPod.

A: It’s true that the word “pastrami” was imported into English by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants who settled in New York in the late 19th century. So English did indeed get the word from Yiddish.

But how did Yiddish get it? As Pat was saying on the Leonard Lopate Show, the word actually originated in the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years ago. Here’s the story.

The Turks preserved beef by pressing it, curing it with salt and spices, then hanging it up to dry for a month or more. The word for this in Ottoman Turkish was basdirma.

This word basdirma, recorded as long ago as 1602, literally meant “something pressed, forced down,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the word in modern Turkish is pastırma or bastırma.

As we know, the Ottoman Empire was far-flung. It extended into Asia Minor, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe. And along with the empire came Turkish foods and the words for them.

Words that sound similar to the Turkish basdirma are known in Arabic, Russian, Armenian, Greek, and other languages.

People in Turkish-occupied regions adopted this meat-curing process and began using it much more widely than the Turks did. In the Balkans, they adapted it not just for beef but for poultry, fish, lamb, goat, and other meats, even camel.

Now we’re getting warmer! The Jews in Turkish-occupied Romania used this curing method to preserve goose and duck breast. Later they used it to cure beef brisket.

What did they call it? They adapted the Romanian word for this dried beef—pastrama—which became pastrami in Yiddish.

Thus the word was passed from Turkish to Romanian to the Yiddish spoken by Eastern European Jews. Eventually, Yiddish-speaking immigrants brought pastrami to America, where it was first sold in Jewish delicatessens in the 1880s.

Still, even into the 20th century, the word was sometimes spelled “pastroma” or “pastrama,” the OED says.

But there’s one way in which modern pastrami differs from the basdirma of the Ottoman Turks—the Ottoman meat was tough like jerky while pastrami is steamed to soften it and make a nice sandwich.

Katz’s Delicatessen, which opened on the Lower East Side of New York in 1888, has claimed to be the first deli to sell a product called “pastrami” in the US. As former neighbors and patrons, we’d like to believe it, but there’s some controversy here.

Romanian Jews were known to be in the city for more than a decade before Katz’s opened, and at least one other deli has also claimed the honors.

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