Originating in Eastern Europe, Montreal-style smoked meat is a traditional Montreal dish, often served as a sandwich, for which the city is famous. The term also refers to the meat itself, i.e., beef brisket which is salted, seasoned and smoked. Due to its diverse origins, there are many variations of this dish. While it is strongly associated with Montreal, it is increasingly being found in restaurants and delicatessens throughout Canada. The term “Montreal smoked meat” is often used, regardless of where the meat has been prepared.
In Quebec, the English term “smoked meat” has been accepted by the Office québécois de la langue française to describe Montreal-style smoked meat. The French term “viande fumée” is also used to describe both the sandwich and the dish, as well as the method of preparing all smoked meats. However, the term “smoked meat” is primarily used to refer to the sandwich and to smoked meat platters.
Montreal-style smoked meat was introduced to Montreal in the late 19th or early 20th century by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. (See Jewish Canadians.) Like other well-known Montreal dishes, such as poutine, its exact origins are unknown. There are, however, many theories in this regard.
Smoked meat appeared more or less simultaneously in various kosher butcher shops in Montreal towards the end of the 19th century. The various methods of preparing the meat evolved throughout the 20th century into the dish so widely enjoyed today.
The introduction of the precursor to the “smoked meat” that Montrealers know today is usually attributed to Aaron Sanft, a Romanian Jewish immigrant. Aaron Sanft arrived in Montreal in 1884 and became the first butcher in the city to sell kosher meat. He used meat smoking techniques practised by the Jewish community in Romania, which he learned them from the Ottoman Turk invaders. (See also Turkish Canadians.) Aaron Sanft was the first butcher in Montreal to advertise the sale of smoked meat.
Less is known about the origins of the take-out smoked meat platter prepared by delicatessens. The first advertisement in this regard dates back to 1904. Prepared foods were convenient and easy to eat for Montreal’s Lower Main area factory workers (who were predominantly Jewish), as the meal breaks were short.
Benjamin Kravitz, a Lithuanian immigrant and founder, in 1929, of the famous Bens De Luxe Delicatessen and Restaurant, claimed that he had introduced Montreal to this type of “smoked meat” around 1908-1910. This is unlikely, as advertisements promoting the sale of smoked meat had been appearing since 1894. His restaurant was located across from the famous Mount Royal Hotel, close to the theatres on Sainte-Catherine Street, which were then in their heyday. It could thus be said that it was Ben Kravitz and his restaurant that popularized Montreal-style smoked meat. However, he cannot claim to have brought the dish to Montreal.
Components of Montreal-style Smoked Meat
Montreal-style smoked meat is slices of beef which have been salted, spiced and smoked. It is usually served in a sandwich made with rye bread spread with yellow or spiced mustard. The sandwich is often served with French fries, cole slaw and a dill pickle. There are different ways of preparing the meat, but the dish is almost always served in the same way, using the same bread, mustard and condiments. Some restaurants and delicatessens also offer a black cherry soft drink to go with it. Reflecting its Jewish origins, the sandwich does not include cheese, because kosher dietary laws forbid the eating of meat and dairy products at the same meal. That said, most restaurants and delicatessens in Montreal and elsewhere in Quebec offering smoked meat dishes are not kosher establishments. Moreover, they have a variety of ways of preparing their meat. The seasoning, smoking and brining (when done) time, fat content and thickness of the slices are all different.
Montreal-style smoked meat is considered to be a variation of the traditional British corned beef dish and is similar to pastrami. However, unlike pastrami, this type of smoked meat contains much less sugar and many more peppercorns and spices, which give it a distinctive flavour. In addition, while pastrami is made using the beef navel, smoked meat is made using the entire breast (which is usually fatter). Traditional Montreal-style smoked meat is coated with spices and marinated for 10 to 14 days before it is hot smoked and then cooked. The spices used to make smoked meat and Montreal steak spice are similar. (See also Beef Cattle Farming.)
Variations on Montreal-style Smoked Meat
Montreal-style smoked meat is increasingly being served in other than sandwich form. Today, smoked meat is often served in Montreal on poutines and pizzas. Grocery stores and deli counters also sell packages of steamed smoked meat. Many well-known Montreal restaurants claim to offer “the best” or “the most authentic” version of the sandwich. Obviously, given the diverse origins of this dish and the various methods of preparing the meat, this is all very subjective.