Rafea Abdelrazek says that his pastirma takes five weeks to make but sells out in a fraction of the time.
“Last time I made five of them and it was all gone in four or five days,” he says, from behind his butchers counter, at the back of the Spiceland grocery store on South Richmond Street.
It is here that he makes the slabs of cured beef, popular back in Egypt where he is from, as well as Turkey, Syria, and other neighbouring countries, he says.
“It’s a different style in each of the countries,” he says. “We use different spices.” His recipe uses vinaigrette, cumin, paprika, chilli powder and garlic.
On a recent Friday, Abdelrazek had on a black-and-white striped apron and was getting started on the month-long process of making his pastirma.
Step one? Salting and hanging the meat.
He came to Ireland about 16 years ago from Alexandria in Egypt, he says. Nine years ago, he trained as a butcher.
There’s a Turkish pre-packed pastirma you can buy in the city, he says. But he thinks he is the only butcher making Egyptian pastirma from scratch here.
The word “pastirma” sounds like pastrami, but while they are both cured beef, Abdelrazek says they are different. They use a different part of the cow for a start, he thinks.
“Pastirma is made with a tender part of the meat,” he says, pointing to a spot on a large leg of beef that hangs in the walk-in fridge. “The cow’s leg, between centre side and the top side.”
He covers the meat in salt and then suspends it from hooks to drain it. He will leave it like that for a day.
“After that, I will put it under something heavy to press it down, for maybe four or five days, every day I turn it over,” he says. That’s to make sure all the water trickles away, and the meat dries out.
The next step is to make a dough from the spices, adding dashes of vinaigrette, and a blend of cumin, paprika, chilli powder and garlic.
Once the meat is covered in the spicy dough, Abdelrazek hangs it from the hooks above his butcher’s counter, which gives the place a fragrant smell.
“If the weather is warm, I’d hang it for three or four weeks; in this weather maybe four or five weeks,” he says.
How to Eat It
Like salami or pastrami, there are many ways to cook or eat pastirma, but there’s one classic accompaniment.
“It is now very popular and used in different ways, but as I remember it in the past it was fried with eggs,” says cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden.
That is how Abdelrazek likes his. “In Egypt, you can eat it in a sandwich and some people put it with fava beans. But me, I like to fry it with some eggs,” he says.
Many of his Irish customers will use it as filling for sandwiches, or just snack on it, he says.
Abdelrazek’s pastirma has a delicate taste. The cumin is gentle and fragrant.
Despite the drying process, the meat isn’t brittle like salami; it has a smoothness to it, that is more like parma ham.
A Travelling Food
The food has a long lineage, but the exact origins of pastirma are unclear.
“Sixty years ago when I left Egypt, pastirma was known as an Armenian speciality sold by Armenians,” says Roden.
She thinks pastirma may have originated in Turkey, where it was traditionally sold in the markets.
Jo Day, a food historian and lecturer at UCD, says that the process of dry-curing beef can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt.
Salting, drying, and hanging the beef were essential parts of daily life and rituals, says Day, who teaches a module on eating and drinking in classical antiquity.
“Given Egypt’s hot climate, meat did not stay fresh for long,” she says. “It had to either be eaten straightaway or preserved for the future.”
It was also useful to have preserved meat for trading, travelling, and ensuring that the excess from sacrifices did not go to waste, she said.
What we know about cooking in ancient Egypt – which involved boiling and spit-roasting, drying, salting, smoking, and curing with fat or honey or beer – we know from paintings in tombs, she says.
“A scene from the tomb of Intefiqer (…) shows the pounding and drying of meat,” she says.
In some instances, mummies were buried with preserved meat too.
“A really fascinating source of evidence is the so-called ‘meat mummies’ – cuts of meat that were mummified and placed in tombs with the deceased to nourish their soul in the afterlife,” she says.
Unfortunately, we don’t know whether spices were used in the cured beef products in ancient Egypt, or whether it resembled today’s pastirma.
Back at Spiceland, Abdelrazek says his final step will be to cut the five large lumps of cured meat into super-thin slices with a machine, and wait for the customers.
This batch should be ready around 14 April, but that’s a rough guess. He will be keeping an eye on it as it slowly matures.