What better way to get a taste of Canadian history than by sinking your teeth into a Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich?

In case you’re a first-timer, Montreal smoked meat — or viande fumée — is a cross between corned beef and pastrami, and typically served on rye bread smothered in zesty mustard. Developed by Jewish delis in Montreal and influenced by New York City’s pastrami, this succulent sandwich is traditionally made by salting and curing beef brisket with spices. Smoky and savoury with a peppery zing, it’s no wonder this meaty delicacy has been popular since the early 1900s.

Montreal Smoked Meat

But like any legendary dish, the origins of Montreal smoked meat are fuzzy and hotly debated among food historians. Some credit Benjamin Kravitz, founder of the famed Bens De Luxe Delicatessen and Restaurant that opened in 1908 (and closed in 2006), for introducing smoked meat to Montreal. After fleeing Lithuania in 1899, Kravitz and his wife, Fanny Schwartz, started serving smoked-meat sandwiches from their fruit and candy shop, using an old family brisket-curing recipe. By the early 1960s, the deli was open 22 hours a day and serving almost 8,000 peckish patrons a day, including big names like Leonard Cohen, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Bette Midler, and René Lévesque.

Others say that Reuben Schwartz put Montreal-style smoked meat on the map. A Jewish immigrant from Romania, he was the original founder of the iconic Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen. Considered the oldest deli in Canada, this legendary hot spot has been serving preservative-free brisket braised in fine herbs and spices since 1928 and is practically a city landmark.

However, Eiran Harris, the Archivist Emeritus of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, believes neither can claim credit for introducing Montreal-style smoked meat to the city. According to this sandwich sleuth, the origins are much more complex.

“The actual genesis was the arrival in 1884 of Aaron Sanft from Yassi, Romania,” Harris said in a 2009 interview. “He became Montreal’s first kosher butcher. Although I don’t know the exact year he introduced [the dish], I do know that he was the first to advertise it.”

In 1894, a full-page advert in a Jewish newspaper proclaimed: “A. Sanft Kosher Meat — 560 Craig Street, Montreal’s largest butcher shop, clean and fresh meat daily. Manufacturer of salami, smoked meat, corned beef, smoked beef and sausages. Same quality as New York. Guaranteed not to spoil.”

By the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t the only delicatessen in town selling smoked meat. Competition was fierce, with numerous purveyors advertising the “kosherest” smoked meat in the Jewish newspaper. From his research, Harris believes it was a New Yorker, Hyman Rees, who opened Montreal’s first “real, sit-down delicatessen restaurant.”

Montreal Smoked Meat

“On May 9th, 1908, he opened the British-American Delicatessen Store on St. Lawrence Boulevard,” says Harris. “The 5 cent smoked meat sandwich caused long lineups around the corner to Ontario Street. Customers were encouraged to vacate their seats as soon as they consumed their meals in order to make room for hungry patrons waiting in line.”

Ultimately, no one knows for sure who “officially” introduced Montreal smoked meat, but the experts can agree on one thing: the dish is likely Romanian and Jewish in origin. It takes a little time-travel across the pond to trace the recipe’s roots.

“Historians believe that modern day smoked meat originated in Turkey and was brought to Romania by invading Turkish armies,” says Harris. “Romanian Jewish butchers improved the curing process, resulting in an exquisitely tender delicacy.”

But what makes Montreal-style smoked meat so special? Pastrami was first popularized in New York City’s Jewish delis in the early 1900s, and this type of kosher-style deli meat eventually made its way to the Great White North with waves of immigration. However, smoked meat in Montreal eventually developed its own flavour, and according to Harris, it all boils down to how the meat is cooked.

“Traditionally, the dry curing process commenced with salt and spices being rubbed on the surfaces of briskets,” says Harris. “They were then piled into wooden barrels, where they remained marinating in their own juices for a period of 12 to 20 days, depending on the thicknesses, and being turned over a couple of times.”

Afterwards, the cured briskets were hung up on racks inside a smokehouse and cooked for six to nine hours depending on brisket size. As Harris says, this dry cooking technique “resulted in the unique quality and flavour of Montreal-style smoked meat.”

In contrast, Harris believes the “need for speed” influenced the American-style cooking tradition. Some purveyors used the “wet cure,” whereby briskets were rubbed with spices and soaked for only four days in a brine-filled barrel of nitrate and water. Another technique involved “heated smoked meat” — cooked briskets that were steamed for just three hours prior to being sliced and served to order.

Schwartz's Deli

Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen in Montreal.

Since New York City’s cuts were considered superior in the early to mid-1900s, it took a bit for patrons to work up an appetite for the Montreal-style smoked meat. In the 1930s, Schwartz’s played a big role in popularizing the dish with their succulent 13 cent sandwiches, attracting hungry hordes and leading other delis to pop up across the city after the 1950s.

Today, the feeding frenzy continues in countless delis across Montreal. Aside from the legendary Schwartz’s, get your fix at Lester’s Deli, a family-run “smoked meat institution” for deli lovers, or mosey over to Reuben’s Deli and Steakhouse for a Famous Super Sandwich — a 10-ounce sandwich piled sky high on rye bread with mustard. But make sure to pull up a stool at Wilensky’s, a hole in the wall hangout since 1932. Rumour has it that Anthony Bourdain loves this joint, and a must try is their “Wilensky Special” — a grilled beef salami and beef bologna sandwich with “compulsory” mustard.

If you’re overwhelmed by the endless delis in Montreal, take a food tour with Fitz and Fowell Co. Over a half day, you’ll get a crash course in the history of Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches, as well as get to sample the best of the bunch. If you still have stomach space, take away some Montreal smoked meat from a local deli and build your own sandwich at home with this recipe from Christine Cushing. Or for something different, try making this tangy Montreal Smoked Meat Pizza or Smoked Meat Poutine!