History and etymology
The Turkish horsemen of Central Asia used to preserve meat by placing slabs of it in pockets on the sides of their saddles, where it would be pressed by their legs as they rode. This pressed meat was the forerunner of today’s pastirma, a term which literally means ‘being pressed’ in Turkish, and is the origin of the Italian pastrami. Pastirma is a kind of cured beef, the most famous being that made in the town of Kayseri in central Turkey.
The 17th century Turkish writer Evliya Çelebi praised the spiced beef pastirma of Kayseri in his Book of Travels, and Kayseri pastirma is still regarded as the finest of all. Good quality pastirma is a delicacy with a wonderful flavour, which may be served in slices as a cold hors d’oeuvre or cooked with eggs, tomatoes and so on. Although pastirma may also be made with mutton or goat’s meat, beef is preferred. Cattle, mainly from the eastern province of Kars, are brought to Kayseri, where they are slaughtered and the meat made into pastirma at factories northwest of the city. The different cuts of meat produce different types of pastirma, 19 varieties from a medium-sized animal and 26 from a large. Extra fine qualities are those made from the fillet and contre-fillet, fine qualities are made from cuts like the shank, leg, tranche and shoulder, and second quality from the leg, brisket, flank, neck and similar cuts. The many tons of pastirma produced in Kayseri is almost all sold for domestic consumption all over Turkey.
Istanbul and Adana are the provinces with the largest consumption. The meat undergoes a series of processes lasting about a month. The freshly slaughtered meat rests at room temperature for 4-8 hours before being divided into joints suitable for pastirma making. These are slashed and salted on one side, stacked, and left for around 24 hours. They are then salted on the other side, stacked and left for a further 24 hours. Then the joints are rinsed in plenty of water to remove the excess salt, and dried in the open air for a period varying between three and ten days, depending on the weather. After some further processing, the meat is hung up to dry again, this time in the shade and spaced out so that the joints do not a touch one another. After 3-6 days, they are covered with a paste of ground spices known as çemen, and left to cure for 10-24 hours in hot weather, and 1-2 days in cold weather. Then the excess çemen is removed, leaving a thin layer, and the joints dried again. Finally the pastirma is ready for the table. The çemen paste covering the slabs of pastirma is both an important factor in the flavour, and protects the meat from drying and spoiling by contact with the air, which would cause the fat in the pastirma to oxidise and give a bitter flavour. ÿemen is composed of crushed classical fenugreek seeds, garlic and chilli pepper mixed to a paste with a little water. Çemen paste is also sold separately as a savoury paste for spreading on bread. When buying pastirma, note that the redder the colour, the fresher the pastirma. Over time it takes on a browner tone, and becomes firmer in texture. Good quality pastirma, whether fresh or mature, is delicious, and it is only a matter of taste which you prefer. Gourmets do not approve of pastirma sliced by machine but insist on the thin slices being cut by hand with a sharp meat knife. They also reject ready cut slices of pastirma as sold packaged in some delicatessens and supermarkets. Pastirma is delicious with fresh crusty bread, grilled lightly over charcoal, fried in butter with eggs or in layered pastry börek. Bean stew with pieces of pastirma is another popular dish in Turkey.
Preparation and usage
Pastirma is prepared by salting the meat, then washing it with water and letting it dry for ten to 15 days. After that the blood and salt is squeezed out of the meat which is then covered with a cumin paste called çemen (lit. "fenugreek") prepared with crushed cumin, fenugreek, garlic, and hot paprika, followed by thorough air-drying. Even though beef is the most common meat today, various meats are also used depending on locality, including camel, lamb, goat, and water buffalo.
The Armenians introduced pastirma to Syria and Lebanon in great quantities, and it is usually served as a meze in thin slices, usually uncooked, but sometimes lightly grilled or added to eggs for breakfast. It may be added to different dishes, the most famous of which is a bean dish, and various pies. The traditional Armenian pastirma strictly uses beef as the meat and this remains as the most common usage.
In Turkey, where it is eaten as a breakfast with eggs and as a meze with rakı, there are more than 22 kinds of pastirma. The version from Central Anatolia, often called Kayseri pastırması, is the one most common. The less-common Rumeli pastırması "Balkan pastırma", is simply salted and dried.
In Iraq, pastirma (basturma) is used for breakfast, with fried eggs, and it is usually prepared by butchers . In Egypt, it is used for breakfast. It is also used as a topping for pizza, and a filling for a variety of oven prepared stuff dough dishes, whether they are made from regular bread-like dough, or a flaky multilayered puff pastry-like dough.
- Maria Kaneva-Johnson: The Melting Pot. Balkan Food and Cookery. Prospect Books, 1995. ISBN 0-907325-57-2. p. 62
- Sami Zubaida, Richard Tapper, Claudia Roden: A Taste of Thyme. Culinary cultures of the Middle East. Tauris, London and New York 1994, p. 35 & 39.
- Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999. ISBN 0-19-211579-0.
- Maria Kaneva-Johnson, The Melting Pot. Balkan Food and Cookery, Prospect Books, 1995. ISBN 0-907325-57-2.
- Media related to Pastirma at Wikimedia Commons