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.

Reference: Mustafa Cetinkaya / Skylife

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